Why read Lukács? The place of “philosophical” questions in Marxism

Chris Cutrone
The Last Marx­ist

A re­sponse to Mike Macnair

Whatever one thinks of Chris Cutrone or Platy­pus, the or­gan­iz­a­tion’s con­tro­ver­sial rhet­or­ic, meth­ods, and antics, the fol­low­ing is an ex­cel­lent es­say and re­sponse in the (still on­go­ing) ex­change between Platy­pus and the CP­GB. This was first presen­ted at the School of the Art In­sti­tute of Chica­go, Janu­ary 11, 2014. A video re­cord­ing is avail­able here, an au­dio re­cord­ing avail­able here.

Still read­ing Lukács? The role of “crit­ic­al the­ory”

Why read Georg Lukács today? Es­pe­cially when his most fam­ous work, His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness, is so clearly an ex­pres­sion of its spe­cif­ic his­tor­ic­al mo­ment, the abor­ted world re­volu­tion of 1917-19 in which he par­ti­cip­ated, at­tempt­ing to fol­low Vladi­mir Len­in and Rosa Lux­em­burg. Are there “philo­soph­ic­al” les­sons to be learned or prin­ciples to be gleaned from Lukács’s work, or is there, rather, the danger, as the Com­mun­ist Party of Great Bri­tain’s Mike Macnair has put it, of “the­or­et­ic­al overkill,” sty­mie­ing of polit­ic­al pos­sib­il­it­ies, clos­ing up the struggle for so­cial­ism in tiny au­thor­it­ari­an and polit­ic­ally sterile sects foun­ded on “the­or­et­ic­al agree­ment?”

Mike Macnair’s art­icle “The philo­sophy trap” (2013) ar­gues about the is­sue of the re­la­tion between the­ory and prac­tice in the his­tory of os­tens­ible “Len­in­ism,” tak­ing is­sue in par­tic­u­lar with Lukács’s books His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness (1923) and Len­in (1924) as well as with Karl Korsch’s 1923 es­say “Marx­ism and philo­sophy.” The is­sue is what kind of the­or­et­ic­al gen­er­al­iz­a­tion of con­scious­ness could be de­rived from the ex­per­i­ence of Bolshev­ism from 1903-21. I agree with Macnair that “philo­soph­ic­al” agree­ment is not the prop­er basis for polit­ic­al agree­ment, but this is not the same as say­ing that polit­ic­al agree­ment has no the­or­et­ic­al im­plic­a­tions. Rather, the is­sue is wheth­er the­or­et­ic­al “po­s­i­tions” have ne­ces­sary polit­ic­al im­plic­a­tions. I think it is a tru­ism to say that there is no sure the­or­et­ic­al basis for ef­fect­ive polit­ic­al prac­tice. But Macnair seems to be say­ing noth­ing more than this. In sub­or­din­at­ing the­ory to prac­tice, Macnair loses sight of the po­ten­tial crit­ic­al role the­ory can play in polit­ic­al prac­tice, spe­cific­ally the task of con­scious­ness of his­tory in the struggle for trans­form­ing so­ci­ety in an eman­cip­at­ory dir­ec­tion.

A cer­tain re­la­tion of the­ory to prac­tice is a mat­ter spe­cif­ic to the mod­ern era, and moreover a prob­lem spe­cif­ic to the era of cap­it­al­ism, that is, after the In­dus­tri­al Re­volu­tion, the emer­gence of the mod­ern pro­let­ari­an­ized work­ing class and its struggle for so­cial­ism, and the crisis of bour­geois so­cial re­la­tions and thus of con­scious­ness of so­ci­ety this en­tails.

Crit­ic­al the­ory re­cog­nizes that the role of the­ory in the at­tempt to trans­form so­ci­ety is not to jus­ti­fy or le­git­im­ate or provide norm­at­ive sanc­tion, not to ra­tion­al­ize what is hap­pen­ing any­way, but rather to cri­tique, to ex­plore con­di­tions of pos­sib­il­ity for change. The role of such crit­ic­al the­ory is not to de­scribe how things are, but rather how they might be­come, how things could and should be, but are not — yet.

The polit­ic­al dis­tinc­tion, then, would be not over the de­scrip­tion of real­ity but rather the ques­tion of what can and should be changed, and over the dir­ec­tion of that change. Hence, crit­ic­al the­ory as such goes bey­ond the dis­tinc­tion of ana­lys­is from de­scrip­tion. The is­sue is not the­or­et­ic­al ana­lys­is prop­er to prac­tic­al mat­ters, but, bey­ond that, and of course in­cor­por­at­ing this, the is­sue of trans­form­ing prac­tices, and do­ing so with act­ive agency and sub­ject­ive re­cog­ni­tion, as op­posed to merely ex­per­i­en­cing changed prac­tice as something that has already happened. In­deed, cap­it­al­ism it­self is a trans­form­at­ive prac­tice, but that trans­form­a­tion has eluded con­scious­ness, spe­cific­ally with re­gard to the ways change has happened, and polit­ic­al judg­ments about this. This is the spe­cif­ic role of the­ory, and hence the place of the­or­et­ic­al is­sues or “philo­soph­ic­al” con­cerns, in Marx­ism. It can­not be com­pared to oth­er forms of the­ory, be­cause they are not con­cerned with chan­ging the world — not con­cerned with the polit­ics of our chan­ging prac­tices. Lukács char­ac­ter­ized this dis­tinc­tion of Marx­ism from “con­tem­plat­ive” or “re­ified” con­scious­ness, to which bour­geois so­ci­ety had oth­er­wise suc­cumbed in cap­it­al­ism.

If os­tens­ibly “Marx­ist” tend­en­cies such as those of the fol­low­ers of Tony Cliff have botched “the­ory,” which un­doubtedly they have, it is be­cause they have con­flated or rendered in­dis­tinct the role of crit­ic­al the­ory as op­posed to the polit­ic­al ex­i­gen­cies of pro­pa­ganda: for or­gan­iz­a­tions ded­ic­ated to pro­pa­ganda, there must be agree­ment as to such pro­pa­ganda; the ques­tion is the role of the­ory in such pro­pa­ganda activ­ity. If the­ory is de­based to jus­ti­fy­ing pro­pa­ganda, then its crit­ic­al role is evac­u­ated, and in­deed it can mask op­por­tunism. But then it ceases to be prop­er the­ory, not be­com­ing simply “wrong” or fals­i­fied but rather ideo­lo­gic­al, which is a dif­fer­ent mat­ter. This is what happened, ac­cord­ing to Lukács and Korsch, in the 2nd/So­cial­ist In­ter­na­tion­al, res­ult­ing in the “vul­gar­iza­tion” of Marx­ism, or the con­fu­sion of the for­mu­la­tions of polit­ic­al pro­pa­ganda in­stead of prop­erly Marx­ist crit­ic­al the­or­iz­a­tion.

The the­ory and prac­tice of “pro­let­ari­an so­cial­ism”

A note on the term “pro­let­ari­at:” This was Marx’s neo­lo­gism for the con­di­tion of the post-In­dus­tri­al Re­volu­tion work­ing class, which was ana­log­ous — but only in meta­phor­ic­al ana­logy! — to the An­cient Ro­man Re­pub­lic’s class of “pro­let­ari­ans:” the mod­ern in­dus­tri­al work­ing class was com­posed of “cit­izens without prop­erty.” In mod­ern, bour­geois so­ci­ety, for in­stance in the view of John Locke, prop­erty in ob­jects is de­rived from labor, be­cause labor is the first prop­erty. Hence, to be a laborer without prop­erty, to be a work­er without prop­erty in one’s own labor, is a self-con­tra­dic­tion in a very spe­cif­ic sense, in that the “ex­pro­pri­ation” of labor hap­pens as a func­tion of so­ci­ety: in Marx and En­gels’s view, this is a func­tion of a self-con­tra­dict­ory form of so­ci­ety. A mod­ern “free wage-labor” work­er is sup­posed to be a free con­trac­tu­al agent with full rights of own­er­ship and dis­pos­al over her own labor in its ex­change, its buy­ing and selling as prop­erty, or, more simply, as a com­mod­ity. This is the most ele­ment­ary form of right in bour­geois so­ci­ety, from which oth­er claims, for in­stance, in­di­vidu­al right to one’s own per­son and equal­ity be­fore the law, flow. If, ac­cord­ing to Marx and En­gels, the con­di­tion of the mod­ern, post-In­dus­tri­al Re­volu­tion work­ing class or “pro­let­ari­at” ex­pressed a self-con­tra­dic­tion of bour­geois so­cial re­la­tions, this was be­cause this set of so­cial re­la­tions, or “bour­geois right,” was in need of trans­form­a­tion: the In­dus­tri­al Re­volu­tion in­dic­ated a po­ten­tial con­di­tion bey­ond bour­geois so­ci­ety. If the work­ers were ex­pro­pri­ated, even though their con­trac­tu­al right to dis­pose of their own labor was already and still con­tin­ued to be sanc­tioned by law, ac­cord­ing to Marx and En­gels, this was be­cause of a prob­lem of the value of labor at a great­er so­ci­et­al level, not at the level of the in­di­vidu­al cap­it­al­ist firm, not re­du­cible to the level of the con­trac­tu­al re­la­tion of the em­ploy­ee to her em­ploy­er, which re­mained “fair ex­change.” The wage con­tract was still bour­geois, but the value of the labor ex­changed was un­der­mined in the great­er (glob­al) so­ci­ety, which was no longer simply bour­geois but rather in­dus­tri­al, that is, “cap­it­al”-ist.

The struggle for so­cial­ism by the pro­let­ari­at was the at­tempt to re­appro­pri­ate the so­cial prop­erty of labor that had been trans­formed and “ex­pro­pri­ated” or “ali­en­ated” in the In­dus­tri­al Re­volu­tion, which Marx and En­gels thought could be achieved only bey­ond cap­it­al­ism, for in­stance in the value of ac­cu­mu­lated past labor in sci­ence and tech­no­logy, as what Marx called the “gen­er­al (so­cial) in­tel­lect.” An ob­ject­ive con­di­tion was ex­pressed sub­ject­ively, but that ob­ject­ive con­di­tion of so­ci­ety was it­self self-con­tra­dict­ory and so ex­pressed in a self-con­tra­dict­ory form of polit­ic­al sub­jectiv­ity, “pro­let­ari­an so­cial­ism.” The greatest ex­em­plar for Marx and En­gels of this self-con­tra­dict­ory form of polit­ics aim­ing to trans­form so­ci­ety was Chartism, a move­ment of the high mo­ment of the In­dus­tri­al Re­volu­tion and its crisis in the 1830s-40s, whose most poin­ted polit­ic­al ex­pres­sion was, in­dic­at­ively, uni­ver­sal suf­frage. The crisis of the bust peri­od of the “Hungry ’40s” in­dic­ated the mat­ur­a­tion of bour­geois so­ci­ety, in crisis, as the pre­ced­ing boom era of the 1830s already had raised ex­pect­a­tions of so­cial­ism, polit­ic­ally as well as tech­nic­ally and cul­tur­ally, for in­stance in the “Uto­pi­an So­cial­ism” of Four­i­er, Saint-Si­mon, Owen et al. (as well as in the “Young Hegel­i­an” move­ment tak­ing place around the world in the 1830s, on whose scene the young­er Marx and En­gels ar­rived be­latedly, dur­ing its crisis and dis­sol­u­tion in the 1840s).

One must dis­tin­guish between the re­la­tion of the­ory and prac­tice in the re­volu­tion­ary bour­geois era and in the post-In­dus­tri­al Re­volu­tion era of the crisis of bour­geois so­ci­ety in cap­it­al­ism and the pro­let­ari­at’s struggle for so­cial­ism. If in the bour­geois era there was a pro­duct­ive ten­sion, a re­flect­ive, spec­u­lat­ive or “philo­soph­ic­al” re­la­tion, for in­stance for Kant and Hegel, between the­ory and prac­tice, in the era of the crisis of bour­geois so­ci­ety there is rather a “neg­at­ive” or “crit­ic­al” re­la­tion. Hence, the need for Marx­ism.

As the Frank­furt School Marx­ist Crit­ic­al The­or­ist Theodor Ad­orno put it, the sep­ar­a­tion of the­ory and prac­tice was eman­cip­at­ory: it ex­pressed the free­dom to think at vari­ance with pre­vail­ing so­cial prac­tices un­known in the An­cient or Me­di­ev­al world of tra­di­tion­al civil­iz­a­tion. The free­dom to re­late and ar­tic­u­late the­ory and prac­tice was a hall­mark of the re­volu­tion­ary emer­gence of bour­geois so­ci­ety: the com­bined re­volu­tion in so­ci­ety of polit­ics, eco­nom­ics, cul­ture (re­li­gion), tech­nique and philo­sophy — the lat­ter un­der the rub­ric “En­light­en­ment.” By con­trast, Ro­mantic so­cial­ism of the early 19th cen­tury sought to re-uni­fy the­ory and prac­tice, to make them one thing as they had been un­der re­li­gious cos­mo­logy as a total way of life. If, ac­cord­ing to Ad­orno, Marx­ism, as op­posed to Ro­mantic so­cial­ism, did not as­pire to a “unity of the­ory and prac­tice” in terms of their iden­tity, but rather of their ar­tic­u­lated sep­ar­a­tion in the trans­form­a­tion of so­ci­ety — trans­form­a­tion of both con­scious­ness and so­cial be­ing — then what Ad­orno re­cog­nized was that, as he put it, the re­la­tion of the­ory and prac­tice is not once-and-for-all but rather “fluc­tu­ates his­tor­ic­ally.” Marx­ism, through dif­fer­ent phases of its his­tory, it­self ex­pressed this fluc­tu­ation. But the fluc­tu­ation was an ex­pres­sion of crisis in Marx­ism, and ul­ti­mately of fail­ure: Ad­orno called it a “neg­at­ive dia­lectic.” It ex­pressed and was tasked by the fail­ure of the re­volu­tion. But this fail­ure was not merely the fail­ure of the in­dus­tri­al work­ing class’s struggle for so­cial­ism in the early 20th cen­tury, but rather that fail­ure was the fail­ure of the eman­cip­a­tion of the bour­geois re­volu­tion: this fail­ure con­sumed his­tory, un­der­min­ing the past achieve­ments of free­dom — as Ad­orno’s col­league Wal­ter Ben­jamin put it, “Even the dead are not safe.” His­tor­ic­al Marx­ism is not a safe leg­acy but suf­fers the vi­cis­situdes of the present. If we still are read­ing Lukács, we need to re­cog­nize the danger to which his thought, as part of Marx­ism’s his­tory, is sub­ject in the present. One way of pro­tect­ing his­tor­ic­al Marx­ism’s leg­acy would be through re­cog­niz­ing its in­ap­plic­ab­il­ity in the present, dis­tan­cing it from im­me­di­ate en­list­ment in present con­cerns, which would con­cede too much already, un­der­min­ing — li­quid­at­ing without re­deem­ing — con­scious­ness once already achieved.

The di­vi­sion in Marx­ism: Lukács with Len­in and Lux­em­burg as “or­tho­dox”

The title of Lukács’s book His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness should be prop­erly un­der­stood dir­ectly as in­dic­at­ing that Lukács’s stud­ies, the vari­ous es­says col­lec­ted in the book, were about class con­scious­ness as con­scious­ness of his­tory. This goes back to the early Marx and En­gels, who un­der­stood the emer­gence of the mod­ern pro­let­ari­at and its polit­ic­al struggles for so­cial­ism after the In­dus­tri­al Re­volu­tion in a “Hegel­i­an” man­ner, that is, as phe­nom­ena or “forms of ap­pear­ance” of so­ci­ety and his­tory spe­cif­ic to the 19th cen­tury. Moreover, Marx and En­gels, in their point of de­par­ture for “Marx­ism” as op­posed to oth­er vari­et­ies of Hegel­ian­ism and so­cial­ism, looked for­ward to the dia­lect­ic­al “Auf­hebung” of this new mod­ern pro­let­ari­at: its sim­ul­tan­eous self-ful­fill­ment and com­ple­tion, self-neg­a­tion, and self-tran­scend­ence in so­cial­ism, which would be (also) that of cap­it­al­ism. In oth­er words, Marx and En­gels re­garded the pro­let­ari­at in the struggle for so­cial­ism as the cent­ral, key phe­nomen­on of cap­it­al­ism, but the symp­to­mat­ic ex­pres­sion of its crisis, self-con­tra­dic­tion and need for self-over­com­ing. This is be­cause cap­it­al­ism was re­garded by Marx and En­gels as a form of so­ci­ety, spe­cific­ally the form of bour­geois so­ci­ety’s crisis and self-con­tra­dic­tion. As Hegel­i­ans, Marx and En­gels re­garded con­tra­dic­tion as the ap­pear­ance of the ne­ces­sity and pos­sib­il­ity for change. So, the ques­tion be­comes, what is the mean­ing of the self-con­tra­dic­tion of bour­geois so­ci­ety, the self-con­tra­dic­tion of bour­geois so­cial re­la­tions, ex­pressed by the post-In­dus­tri­al Re­volu­tion work­ing class and its forms of polit­ic­al struggle?

This lat­ter part is key, for Marx and En­gels re­garded the polit­ics of pro­let­ari­an so­cial­ism as a form of bour­geois polit­ics in crisis and self-con­tra­dic­tion. This is what it meant for Marx and En­gels to say that the ob­ject­ive ex­ist­ence of the pro­let­ari­at (“prop­er­ty­less” work­ers) and its sub­ject­ive struggle for so­cial­ism were phe­nom­ena of the self-con­tra­dic­tion of bour­geois so­ci­ety and its po­ten­tial Auf­hebung.

The struggle for so­cial­ism was self-con­tra­dict­ory. This is what Lukács em­phas­ized and ru­min­ated on in His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness. But this was not ori­gin­al to Lukács or achieved simply by Lukács’s read­ing of Marx and En­gels, but rather me­di­ated through con­sid­er­a­tion of and at­temp­ted act­ive par­ti­cip­a­tion in the polit­ics of Len­in and Rosa Lux­em­burg: Len­in and Lux­em­burg provided ac­cess, for Lukács as well as oth­ers in the nas­cent 3rd or Com­mun­ist In­ter­na­tion­al, to the “ori­gin­al Marx­ism” of Marx and En­gels. For Marx and En­gels re­cog­nized that so­cial­ism was in­ev­it­ably ideo­lo­gic­al: a self-con­tra­dict­ory form of polit­ics and con­scious­ness. The ques­tion was how to ad­vance the con­tra­dic­tion.

As an act­ive par­ti­cipant in the project of the Com­mun­ist In­ter­na­tion­al, for Lukács in his books His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness and Len­in (as well as for Karl Korsch in “Marx­ism and philo­sophy” and oth­er writ­ings circa 1923), the in­ter­ven­ing Marx­ism of the 2nd or So­cial­ist In­ter­na­tion­al had be­come an obstacle to Marx and En­gels’s Marx­ism and thus to pro­let­ari­an so­cial­ist re­volu­tion in the early 20th cen­tury, an obstacle that the polit­ic­al struggles of Len­in, Lux­em­burg and oth­er rad­ic­als in the 2nd In­ter­na­tion­al sought to over­come. This obstacle of 2nd In­ter­na­tion­al Marx­ism had the­or­et­ic­al as well as prac­tic­al-polit­ic­al as­pects: it was ex­pressed both at the level of the­or­et­ic­al con­scious­ness as well as at the level of polit­ic­al or­gan­iz­a­tion.

It is im­port­ant to note that the 2nd In­ter­na­tion­al Marx­ism had be­come an obstacle. In­deed, ac­cord­ing to Lux­em­burg, in Re­form and Re­volu­tion (1900) and in Len­in’s What is to be Done? (1902) (the lat­ter of which was an at­temp­ted ap­plic­a­tion of the terms of the Re­vi­sion­ist Dis­pute in the 2nd In­ter­na­tion­al to con­di­tions in the Rus­si­an move­ment), the de­vel­op­ment of pro­let­ari­an so­cial­ism in the 2nd In­ter­na­tion­al had pro­duced its own obstacle, so to the speak, in be­com­ing self-di­vided between “or­tho­dox Marx­ists” who re­tained fi­del­ity to the re­volu­tion­ary polit­ics of pro­let­ari­an so­cial­ism in terms of the Re­volu­tions of 1848 and the Par­is Com­mune of 1871, and “Re­vi­sion­ists” who thought that polit­ic­al prac­tice and the­or­et­ic­al con­scious­ness of Marx­ism de­man­ded trans­form­a­tion un­der the altered his­tor­ic­al so­cial con­di­tions that had been achieved by the work­ers’ struggle for so­cial­ism, which pro­ceeded in an “evol­u­tion­ary” way. Eduard Bern­stein gave the clearest ex­pres­sion of this “Re­vi­sion­ist” view, which in­dic­at­ively was in­flu­enced by the Brit­ish Fa­bi­an­ism (by Bern­stein’s par­ti­cip­a­tion in work­ing class polit­ics while liv­ing in polit­ic­al ex­ile in the U.K.) that led to the con­tem­por­ary form­a­tion of the La­bour Party, and found its greatest polit­ic­al sup­port among the work­ing class’s trade uni­on lead­ers in the 2nd In­ter­na­tion­al, es­pe­cially in Ger­many.

Marx­ism of the Third In­ter­na­tion­al

Len­in, Lux­em­burg, and Lukács and Korsch among oth­ers fol­low­ing them, thought that the self-con­tra­dict­ory nature and char­ac­ter — ori­gin and ex­pres­sion — of pro­let­ari­an so­cial­ism meant that the lat­ter’s de­vel­op­ment pro­ceeded in a self-con­tra­dict­ory way, which meant that the move­ment of his­tor­ic­al “pro­gress” was self-con­tra­dict­ory. Lux­em­burg sum­mar­ized this view in Re­form or Re­volu­tion, where she poin­ted out that the growth in or­gan­iz­a­tion and con­scious­ness of the pro­let­ari­at was it­self part of — a new phe­nomen­on of — the self-con­tra­dic­tion of cap­it­al­ism, and so ex­pressed it­self in its own self-con­tra­dict­ory way. This was how Lux­em­burg grasped the Re­vi­sion­ist Dis­pute in the Marx­ism of the 2nd In­ter­na­tion­al it­self. This self-con­tra­dic­tion was the­or­et­ic­al as well as prac­tic­al: for Lux­em­burg and for Len­in the “the­or­et­ic­al struggle” was an ex­pres­sion of prac­tic­al self-con­tra­dic­tion. Le­on Trot­sky ex­pressed this “or­tho­dox Marx­ist” view shared by Len­in and Lux­em­burg in his 1906 Res­ults and Pro­spects, on the 1905 Re­volu­tion in Rus­sia, by point­ing out that the “prere­quis­ites of so­cial­ism” were self-con­tra­dict­ory: that they “re­tarded” rather than pro­moted each oth­er. This view was due to the un­der­stand­ing that pro­let­ari­an so­cial­ism was bound up in the crisis of cap­it­al­ism which was dis­in­teg­rat­ive: the struggle for so­cial­ism was caught up in the dis­in­teg­ra­tion of bour­geois so­ci­ety in cap­it­al­ism. For Lux­em­burg, Len­in and Trot­sky con­tra Bern­stein, the crisis of cap­it­al­ism was deep­en­ing.

One of the clearest ex­pres­sions of this dis­in­teg­rat­ive pro­cess of self-con­tra­dic­tion in Lux­em­burg, Len­in and Trot­sky’s time was the re­la­tion of cap­it­al­ism as a glob­al sys­tem to the polit­ic­al di­vi­sions between na­tion­al states in the era of “mono­poly cap­it­al” and “im­per­i­al­ism” that led to the World War, but was already ap­pre­hen­ded in the Re­vi­sion­ist Dis­pute at the turn of the 20th cen­tury as ex­press­ing the need for so­cial­ism — the need for pro­let­ari­an polit­ic­al re­volu­tion. Len­in and Lux­em­burg’s aca­dem­ic doc­tor­al dis­ser­ta­tions of the 1890s, on the de­vel­op­ment of cap­it­al­ism in Rus­sia and Po­land, re­spect­ively, ad­dressed this phe­nomen­on of “com­bined and un­even” de­vel­op­ment in the epoch of cap­it­al­ist crisis, dis­in­teg­ra­tion and “de­cay,” as ex­press­ing the need for world re­volu­tion. Moreover, Len­in in What is to be Done? ex­pressed the per­spect­ive that the Re­vi­sion­ist Dis­pute in Marx­ism was it­self an ex­pres­sion of the crisis of cap­it­al­ism mani­fest­ing with­in the so­cial­ist work­ers’ move­ment, a pre­lude to re­volu­tion.

While it is con­ven­tion­al to op­pose Lux­em­burg and Len­in’s “re­volu­tion­ary so­cial­ism” to Bern­stein et al.’s “evol­u­tion­ism,” and hence to op­pose Lux­em­burg and Len­in’s “dia­lect­ic­al” Marx­ism to the Re­vi­sion­ist “mech­an­ic­al” one, what is lost in this view is the role of his­tor­ic­al dy­nam­ics of con­scious­ness in Len­in and Lux­em­burg’s (and Trot­sky’s) view: this is the phe­nomen­on of his­tor­ic­al “re­gres­sion” as op­posed to “pro­gress,” which the “evol­u­tion­ary so­cial­ism” of Bern­stein et al. as­sumed and later Sta­lin­ism also as­sumed. The most im­port­ant dis­tinc­tion of Lux­em­burg and Len­in’s (as well as Trot­sky’s) “or­tho­dox” per­spect­ive — in Lukács’s (and Korsch’s) view, what made their Marx­ism “dia­lect­ic­al” and “Hegel­i­an” — was its re­cog­ni­tion of his­tor­ic­al “re­gres­sion” — its re­cog­ni­tion of bour­geois so­ci­ety as dis­in­teg­rat­ive and self-de­struct­ive in its crisis of cap­it­al­ism. But this pro­cess of dis­in­teg­ra­tion was re­cog­nized as af­fect­ing the pro­let­ari­at and its polit­ics as well. Ben­jamin and Ad­orno’s the­ory of re­gres­sion began here.

His­tor­ic­al re­gres­sion

The ques­tion is how to prop­erly re­cog­nize, in polit­ic­al prac­tice as well as the­ory, the ways in which the struggle for pro­let­ari­an so­cial­ism — so­cial­ism achieved by way of the polit­ic­al ac­tion of wage-laborers in the post-In­dus­tri­al Re­volu­tion era as such — is caught up and par­ti­cip­ates in the pro­cess of cap­it­al­ist dis­in­teg­ra­tion: the ex­pres­sion of pro­let­ari­an so­cial­ism as a phe­nomen­on of his­tory, spe­cific­ally as a phe­nomen­on of crisis and re­gres­sion.

This his­tory has mul­tiple re­gisters: there is the prin­cip­al re­gister of the post-In­dus­tri­al Re­volu­tion crisis of bour­geois so­ci­ety in cap­it­al­ism, its crisis and de­par­ture from pre­ced­ing bour­geois so­cial re­la­tions (those of the pri­or, pre-in­dus­tri­al eras of “co­oper­a­tion” and “man­u­fac­ture” of the 16th, 17th and 18th cen­tur­ies, in Marx’s terms); but there is also the re­gister of the dy­nam­ics and peri­ods with­in cap­it­al­ism it­self. Cap­it­al­ism was for Marx and En­gels already the re­gres­sion of bour­geois so­ci­ety. This is where Lukács’s (and Korsch’s) per­spect­ive, de­rived from Lux­em­burg and Len­in’s (and Trot­sky’s) views from 1900-19, what they con­sidered an era of “re­volu­tion,” might be­come prob­lem­at­ic for us, today: the his­tory of the post-1923 world has not been, as 1848-1914 was in the 2nd In­ter­na­tion­al “or­tho­dox” or “rad­ic­al” Marx­ist (as op­posed to Re­vi­sion­ist) view, a pro­cess of in­creas­ing crisis and de­vel­op­ment of re­volu­tion­ary polit­ic­al ne­ces­sit­ies, but rather a pro­cess of con­tin­ued so­cial dis­in­teg­ra­tion of cap­it­al­ism without, however, this be­ing ex­pressed in and through the struggle for pro­let­ari­an so­cial­ism.

It is im­port­ant to note that Lukács (and Korsch) aban­doned rather rap­idly their 1923 per­spect­ives, ad­just­ing to de­vel­op­ing cir­cum­stances of a non-re­volu­tion­ary era.

Here is where the prob­lem­at­ic re­la­tion of Tony Cliff’s polit­ic­al project to Lukács (and Korsch), and hence to Len­in, Lux­em­burg and Trot­sky, may be loc­ated: in Cliff’s per­spect­ive on his (post-1945) time be­ing a “non-re­volu­tion­ary” one, de­mand­ing a project of “pro­pa­ganda” that is re­lated to but dif­fers sig­ni­fic­antly from the mo­ment of Len­in et al. For the Clif­fites and their or­gan­iz­a­tions, “polit­ic­al prac­tice” is one of pro­pa­ganda in a non-re­volu­tion­ary peri­od, in which polit­ic­al ac­tion is less of a dir­ectly prac­tic­al but rather of an ex­em­plary-pro­pa­gand­ist­ic sig­ni­fic­ance. This has been muddled by “move­ment-build­ing.”

This was not the case for Lux­em­burg, Len­in, and Trot­sky, whose polit­ic­al prac­tice was dir­ectly about the struggle for power, and in whose prac­tic­al project Lukács’s (and Korsch’s) “the­or­et­ic­al” work sought to par­ti­cip­ate, of­fer­ing at­tempts at cla­ri­fic­a­tion of self-un­der­stand­ing to re­volu­tion­ar­ies “on the march.” Cliff and his fol­low­ers, at least at their most self-con­scious, have known that they were do­ing something es­sen­tially dif­fer­ent from Len­in et al.: they were not or­gan­iz­ing a re­volu­tion­ary polit­ic­al party seek­ing a bid for power as part of an up­surge of work­ing class struggle in the con­text of a glob­al move­ment (the 2nd In­ter­na­tion­al), as had been the case for Len­in at the time ofWhat is to be Done? (1902), or Lux­em­burg’s Mass Strike pamph­let and Trot­sky in the Rus­si­an Re­volu­tion of 1905. Yet the Clif­fites have used the ideas of Len­in and Lux­em­burg and their fol­low­ers, such as Lukács and Korsch as well as Trot­sky, to jus­ti­fy their prac­tices. This presents cer­tain prob­lems. Yes, Len­in et al. have be­come ideo­lo­gic­al in the hands of the Clif­fites, among oth­ers — “Len­in­ism” for the Sta­lin­ists most prom­in­ently. So the ques­tion turns to the status of Len­in’s ideas in them­selves and in their own mo­ment.

Mike Macnair points out that Lukács’s (and Korsch’s) works circa 1923 em­phas­ized at­tack and so sought to provide a “the­ory of the of­fens­ive,” as op­posed to Len­in’s ar­gu­ments about the ne­ces­sit­ies of “re­treat” in 1920 (as against and in cri­tique of “Left-Wing” Com­mun­ism) and what Macnair has else­where de­scribed as the need for “Kaut­sky­an pa­tience” in polit­ic­ally build­ing for pro­let­ari­an so­cial­ism (as in the era of the 2nd In­ter­na­tion­al 1889-1914), and so this lim­its the per­spect­ive of Lukács (and Korsch), after Len­in and Lux­em­burg (and Trot­sky), to a peri­od of “civil war” (1905, 1914/17-19/20/21). In this, Macnair is con­cerned, rightly, with “the­ory” be­com­ing a blinder to prop­er polit­ic­al prac­tice: “the­or­et­ic­al overkill” is a mat­ter of over-“philo­soph­iz­ing” polit­ics. But there is a dif­fer­ence between act­ive cam­paign­ing in the struggle for power, wheth­er in at­tack or (tem­por­ary) re­treat, and pro­pa­gand­iz­ing, to which Marx­ism (at best) has been re­leg­ated ever since the early 20th cen­tury.

However, in rais­ing, by con­trast, the need for a con­scious open­ness to “em­pir­ic­al real­ity” of polit­ic­al ex­per­i­ence, Macnair suc­cumbs to a lin­ear-pro­gress­ive view of his­tory as well as of polit­ic­al prac­tice, turn­ing this in­to a mat­ter of “les­sons learned:” it be­comes a quant­it­at­ive rather than qual­it­at­ive mat­ter. Moreover, it be­comes a mat­ter of the­ory in a con­ven­tion­al rather than the Marx­ist “crit­ic­al” sense, in which the de­scrip­tion of real­ity and its ana­lys­is ap­proach more and more ad­equate ap­prox­im­a­tions.

Len­in, Lux­em­burg, and Trot­sky, and so Lukács (and Korsch), as “or­tho­dox” as op­posed to “re­vi­sion­ist” Marx­ists, con­ceived of the de­vel­op­ment of con­scious­ness, both the­or­et­ic­ally and prac­tic­ally-or­gan­iz­a­tion­ally, rather dif­fer­ently, in that a ne­ces­sary “trans­form­a­tion of Marx­ism,” which took place in the “pe­cu­li­ar guise” of a “re­turn to the ori­gin­al Marx­ism of Marx and En­gels” (Korsch), could be an as­set in the present. But that “present” was the “crisis of Marx­ism” 1914-19, which is not, today, our mo­ment — as even Cliff and his fol­low­ers, with their no­tion of “pro­pa­ganda” in a non-re­volu­tion­ary era, have re­cog­nized (as did Lukács and Korsch, in sub­sequently abandon­ing their circa-1923 per­spect­ives).

So what is the status of such ideas in a non-re­volu­tion­ary era?

Korsch and the prob­lem of “philo­sophy”

Karl Korsch, Lukács’s con­tem­por­ary in the 3rd In­tl., whose work Macnair de­lib­er­ately and ex­pli­citly puts aside in his at­tack on the prob­lem­at­ic leg­acy of Lukács’s books His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness and Len­in for the Clif­fites, offered a pithy for­mu­la­tion in his 1923 es­say on “Marx­ism and philo­sophy,” which is that “a prob­lem which su­per­sedes present re­la­tions may have been for­mu­lated in an an­teri­or epoch.”

This is a non-lin­ear, non-pro­gress­ive and re­curs­ive view of his­tory, which Korsch gleaned from Lux­em­burg and Len­in’s con­tri­bu­tions to the Re­vi­sion­ist Dis­pute in the 2nd In­ter­na­tion­al (e.g., Re­form or Re­volu­tion,What is to be Done?, etc.; and Trot­sky’s Res­ults and Pro­spects). It has its ori­gins in Marx and En­gels’s view of cap­it­al­ism as a re­gress­ive, dis­in­teg­rat­ive pro­cess. This view has two re­gisters: the self-con­tra­dic­tion and crisis of bour­geois so­cial re­la­tions in the trans­ition to cap­it­al­ism after the In­dus­tri­al Re­volu­tion; and the dis­in­teg­rat­ive and self-de­struct­ive pro­cess of the re­pro­duc­tion of cap­it­al­ism it­self, which takes place with­in and as a func­tion of the re­pro­duc­tion of bour­geois so­cial re­la­tions, through suc­cess­ive crises.

Marx and En­gels re­cog­nized that the crisis of cap­it­al­ism was mo­tiv­ated by the re­pro­duc­tion of bour­geois so­cial re­la­tions un­der con­di­tions of the dis­in­teg­ra­tion of the value of labor in the In­dus­tri­al Re­volu­tion, pro­du­cing the need for so­cial­ism. The in­dus­tri­al-era work­ing class’s struggle for the so­cial value of its labor was at once re­gress­ive, as if bour­geois so­cial re­la­tions of the value of labor had not been un­der­mined by the In­dus­tri­al Re­volu­tion, and poin­ted bey­ond cap­it­al­ism, in that the real­iz­a­tion of the de­mands for prop­er so­cial value of labor would mean over­com­ing labor as value in so­ci­ety, trans­form­ing work from “life’s prime need” to “life’s prime want:” work would be done not out of the so­cial com­pul­sion to labor in the val­or­iz­a­tion pro­cess of cap­it­al, but rather out of in­trins­ic de­sire and in­terest; and so­ci­ety would provide for “each ac­cord­ing to his need” from “each ac­cord­ing to his abil­ity.” As Ad­orno, a later fol­low­er of Lukács and Korsch’s works circa 1923 that had con­ver­ted him to Marx­ism, put it, get­ting bey­ond cap­it­al­ism would mean over­com­ing the “law of labor.”

Korsch’s ar­gu­ment in his 1923 es­say “Marx­ism and philo­sophy” was fo­cused on a very spe­cif­ic prob­lem, the status of philo­sophy in Marx­ism, in the dir­ect sense of Marx and En­gels be­ing fol­low­ers of Hegel, and Hegel rep­res­ent­ing a cer­tain “end” to philo­sophy, in which the world be­came philo­soph­ic­al and philo­sophy be­came worldly. Hegel an­nounced that with his work, philo­sophy was “com­pleted,” as a func­tion of re­cog­niz­ing how so­ci­ety had be­come “philo­soph­ic­al,” or me­di­ated through con­cep­tu­al the­ory in ways pre­vi­ously not the case. Marx and En­gels ac­cep­ted Hegel’s con­clu­sion, in which case the is­sue was to fur­ther the re­volu­tion of bour­geois so­ci­ety — the “philo­soph­ic­al” world that de­man­ded worldly “philo­sophy.” The dis­putes among the Hegel­i­ans in the 1830s and ’40s were con­cerned, prop­erly, with pre­cisely the polit­ics of the bour­geois world and its dir­ec­tion of change. The prob­lem, ac­cord­ing to Korsch, was that, post-1848, there was a re­cru­des­cence of “philo­sophy,” and that this was something oth­er than what had been prac­ticed either tra­di­tion­ally by the An­cients or in mod­ern­ity by re­volu­tion­ary bour­geois thinkers — thinkers of the re­volu­tion of the bour­geois era — such as Kant and Hegel (also Rousseau, John Locke, Adam Smith, et al.).

The re­cru­des­cence of philo­sophy in the late 19th cen­tury was, ac­cord­ing to Korsch, a symp­tom of the fail­ure of so­cial­ism in 1848, but as such ex­pressed a genu­ine need: the ne­ces­sity of re­lat­ing the­ory and prac­tice as a prob­lem of con­scious­ness un­der con­di­tions of cap­it­al­ism. In this re­spect, Marx­ism was the sus­tain­ing of the Kan­tian-Hegel­i­an “crit­ic­al philo­sophy” but un­der changed con­di­tions from the bour­geois-re­volu­tion­ary era to that of cap­it­al­ism. Korsch ana­lo­gized this to the re­cru­des­cence of the state in post-1848 Bona­partism, which con­tra­dicted the bour­geois-re­volu­tion­ary, lib­er­al pro­gnos­is of the sub­or­din­a­tion of the state to civil so­ci­ety and thus the state’s “with­er­ing away,” its func­tions ab­sorbed in­to free so­cial re­la­tions. This meant re­cog­niz­ing the need to over­come re­cru­des­cent philo­sophy as ana­log­ous to the need to over­come the cap­it­al­ist state, the trans­form­a­tion of its ne­ces­sity through so­cial­ism. “Bona­partism in philo­sophy” ex­pressed a new, late found need in cap­it­al­ism to free so­ci­ety.

As Korsch put it, the only way to “ab­ol­ish” philo­sophy would be to “real­ize” it: so­cial­ism would be the at­tain­ment of the “philo­soph­ic­al world” prom­ised by bour­geois eman­cip­a­tion but be­trayed by cap­it­al­ism, which renders so­ci­ety opaque. It would be pre­ma­ture to say that un­der cap­it­al­ism every­one is already a philo­soph­er. In­deed, the point is that none are. But this is be­cause of the ali­en­a­tion and re­ific­a­tion of bour­geois so­cial re­la­tions in cap­it­al­ism, which renders the Kan­tian-Hegel­i­an “worldly philo­sophy” of the crit­ic­al re­la­tion of the­ory and prac­tice an as­pir­a­tion rather than an ac­tu­al­ity. Non­ethe­less, Marx­ist crit­ic­al the­ory ac­cep­ted the task of such mod­ern crit­ic­al philo­sophy, spe­cific­ally re­gard­ing the ideo­lo­gic­al prob­lem of the­ory and prac­tice in the struggle for so­cial­ism. This is what it meant to say, as was for­mu­lated in the 2nd In­ter­na­tion­al, that the work­ers’ move­ment for so­cial­ism was the in­her­it­or of Ger­man Ideal­ism: it was the in­her­it­or of the re­volu­tion­ary pro­cess of bour­geois eman­cip­a­tion, which the bour­geois­ie, com­prom­ised by cap­it­al­ism, had aban­doned. The task re­mained.

Trans­form­a­tion of Marx­ism through “re­turn” to Marx — and re­turn to the bour­geois re­volu­tion

Len­in, Lux­em­burg, and Trot­sky, “or­tho­dox Marx­ists” of the 2nd In­ter­na­tion­al who rad­ic­al­ized their per­spect­ives in the crisis of the 2nd In­ter­na­tion­al and of Marx­ism in world war and re­volu­tion 1914-1919, and were fol­lowed by new con­verts to Marx­ism such as Lukács and Korsch, were sub­jects of a his­tor­ic­al mo­ment in which the crisis of bour­geois so­ci­ety in cap­it­al­ism was ex­pressed by so­cial and polit­ic­al crisis and the move­ment for “pro­let­ari­an so­cial­ist” re­volu­tion, be­gin­ning, after the In­dus­tri­al Re­volu­tion, in the 1830s-40s, the at­tempt to re­vo­lu­tion­ize so­ci­ety cent­rally by the wage-laborers as such, a move­ment dom­in­ated from 1889-1914 by the prac­tic­al polit­ics as well as the­or­et­ic­al con­scious­ness of Marx­ism. — However, we must re­cog­nize today that that mo­ment was lost.

Why would Lukács and Korsch in the 20th cen­tury re­turn to the ori­gins of Marx­ism in Hegel­ian­ism, in what Korsch called the con­scious­ness of the “re­volt of the Third Es­tate?,” a pro­cess of the 17th and 18th cen­tur­ies (that had already be­gun earli­er)? Pre­cisely be­cause Lukács and Korsch sought to ad­dress Marx­ism’s re­la­tion to the re­volt of the Third Es­tate’s bour­geois glor­i­fic­a­tion of the so­cial re­la­tions of labor, and the re­la­tion of this to the demo­crat­ic re­volu­tion (see for ex­ample the Abbé Sieyès’s re­volu­tion­ary 1789 pamph­let What is the Third Es­tate?): how Marx­ism re­cog­nized that this re­la­tion between labor and demo­cracy con­tin­ued in 19th cen­tury so­cial­ism. In Lukács and Korsch’s view, pro­let­ari­an so­cial­ism sus­tained just this bour­geois re­volu­tion, al­beit un­der the changed con­di­tions of the In­dus­tri­al Re­volu­tion and its cap­it­al­ist af­ter­math. Mike Macnair ac­know­ledges this in his fo­cus on the Eng­lish En­light­en­ment “ma­ter­i­al­ism” of John Locke in the 17th and 18th cen­tur­ies and the Brit­ish Chartism of the early 19th cen­tury, their in­trins­ic con­tinu­ity in the demo­crat­ic re­volu­tion, and Marx and En­gels’s con­tinu­ity with both. But then Macnair takes Kant and Hegel — and thus Lukács and Korsch fol­low­ing them — to be counter-En­light­en­ment and anti-demo­crat­ic thinkers ac­com­mod­at­ing auto­crat­ic polit­ic­al au­thor­ity, draw­ing this from Hume’s al­leged turn away from the rad­ic­al­ism of Locke back to Hobbes’s polit­ic­al con­ser­vat­ism, and Kant and Hegel’s al­leged af­firm­a­tion of the Prus­si­an state. But this leaves out the cru­cially im­port­ant in­flu­ence on Kant and Ger­man Ideal­ism more gen­er­ally by Rousseau, of whom Hegel re­marked that “free­dom dawned on the world” in his works, and who cri­tiqued and de­par­ted from Hobbes’s so­ci­ety of “war of all against all” and built rather upon Locke’s view of so­ci­ety and polit­ics, sus­tain­ing and pro­mot­ing the re­volu­tion in bour­geois so­ci­ety as “more than the sum of its parts,” re­volu­tion­ary in its so­cial re­la­tions per se, sem­in­al for the Amer­ic­an and French Re­volu­tions of the later 18th cen­tury. Cap­it­al, as the con­tin­ued so­cial com­pul­sion to wage-labor after its crisis of value in the In­dus­tri­al Re­volu­tion, both is and is not the Rousseau­ian “gen­er­al will” of cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety: it is a self-con­tra­dict­ory “mode of pro­duc­tion” and set of so­cial re­la­tions, ex­pressed through self-con­tra­dict­ory con­scious­ness, in the­ory and prac­tice, of its so­cial and polit­ic­al sub­jects, first and fore­most the con­scious­ness of the pro­let­ari­at.

Marx and En­gels’s point was the pro­let­ari­at’s crit­ic­al re­cog­ni­tion of the self-con­tra­dict­ory char­ac­ter of its struggle for so­cial­ism, in what Marx called the “lo­gic­al ex­treme” of the role of the pro­let­ari­at in the demo­crat­ic re­volu­tion of the 19th cen­tury, which could not, ac­cord­ing to Marx, take its “po­etry” from the 17th and 18th cen­tur­ies, as clearly ex­pressed in the fail­ure of the re­volu­tions of 1848 (“Ad­dress to the Cent­ral Com­mit­tee of the Com­mun­ist League,” 1850), Marx’s fam­ous for­mu­la­tion of the need for “re­volu­tion in per­man­ence.” What this means is that the demo­crat­ic re­volu­tion­ary as­pir­a­tions of the wage-laborers for the “so­cial re­pub­lic” was the self-con­tra­dict­ory de­mand for the real­iz­a­tion of the so­cial value of labor after this had already taken the form of ac­cu­mu­lated cap­it­al, what Marx called the “gen­er­al in­tel­lect.” It is not the so­cial value of labor, but rather that of this “gen­er­al in­tel­lect” which must be re­appro­pri­ated, and by the wage-laborers them­selves, in their dis­con­tents as sub­jects of demo­cracy. The on­go­ing demo­crat­ic re­volu­tion renders this both pos­sible and su­per­flu­ous in that it renders the state both the agency and obstacle to this re­appro­pri­ation, in post-1848 Bona­partism, which prom­ises everything to every­one — to over­come the “so­cial ques­tion” of cap­it­al­ism — but provides noth­ing, a di­ver­sion of the demo­crat­ic re­volu­tion un­der con­di­tions of self-con­tra­dict­ory bour­geois so­cial re­la­tions: the state prom­ises em­ploy­ment but gives un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits or sub­sid­izes the lost value of wages; as Ad­orno put it, the work­ers get a cut of the profits of cap­it­al, to pre­vent re­volu­tion (“Late cap­it­al­ism or in­dus­tri­al so­ci­ety?” AKA “Is Marx ob­sol­ete?,” 1968). Or, as Ad­orno’s col­league, the dir­ect­or of the Frank­furt In­sti­tute Max Horkheimer put it, the In­dus­tri­al Re­volu­tion and its con­tin­ued so­cial rami­fic­a­tions made not labor but the work­ers “su­per­flu­ous.” This cre­ated a very dan­ger­ous polit­ic­al situ­ation — clearly ex­pressed by the cata­stroph­ic events of the 20th cen­tury, me­di­ated by mass “demo­crat­ic” move­ments.

Marx­ism in the 20th cen­tury

In the 20th cen­tury, un­der the pres­sure of mass demo­cracy — it­self the res­ult of the class struggle of the work­ers — the role of the state as self-con­tra­dict­ory and help­less man­ager of cap­it­al­ism came to full fruition, but not through the self-con­scious activ­ity of the work­ing class’s polit­ic­al struggle for so­cial­ism, con­front­ing the need to over­come the role of the state, but more ob­scurely, with per­verse res­ults. Len­in’s point in The State and Re­volu­tion (1917) was the need for the re­volu­tion­ary trans­form­a­tion of so­ci­ety bey­ond “bour­geois right” that the state symp­to­mat­ic­ally ex­pressed; but, ac­cord­ing to Len­in, this could be ac­com­plished only “on the basis of cap­it­al­ism it­self” (“Left-Wing” Com­mun­ism: An In­fant­ile Dis­order, 1920). If the work­ing class among oth­ers in bour­geois so­ci­ety has suc­cumbed to what Lukács called the “re­ific­a­tion” of bour­geois so­cial re­la­tions, then this has been com­pletely nat­ur­al­ized and can no longer be called out and re­cog­nized as such. For Lukács, “re­ific­a­tion” re­ferred to the hy­po­stat­iz­a­tion and con­ser­vat­iz­a­tion of the work­ers’ own polit­ics in pro­tect­ing their “class in­terest,” what Len­in called mere “trade uni­on con­scious­ness” (in­clud­ing that of na­tion­al­ist com­pet­i­tion) in cap­it­al­ism, rather than rising to the need to over­come this in prac­tice, re­cog­niz­ing how the work­ers’ polit­ic­al struggles might point bey­ond and tran­scend them­selves. This in­cluded demo­cracy, which could oc­cult the so­cial pro­cess of cap­it­al­ism as much as re­veal it.

One phe­nomen­on of such re­ific­a­tion in the 20th cen­tury was what Ad­orno called the “veil of tech­no­logy,” which in­cluded the ap­pear­ance of cap­it­al as a thing (as in cap­it­al goods, or tech­niques of or­gan­iz­ing pro­duc­tion), rather than as Marx­ism re­cog­nized it, a so­cial re­la­tion, however self-con­tra­dict­ory.

The anti-Marx­ist, lib­er­al (yet still quite con­ser­vat­ive) Heide­g­geri­an polit­ic­al the­or­ist Han­nah Aren­dt (and an ant­ag­on­ist of Ad­orno and oth­er Marx­ist “Crit­ic­al The­or­ists” of the Frank­furt School, who was however mar­ried to a former Com­mun­ist fol­low­er of Rosa Lux­em­burg’s Sparta­cus League of 1919), ex­pressed well how the work­ing class in the 20th cen­tury de­veloped after the fail­ure of Marx­ism:

The mod­ern age has car­ried with it a the­or­et­ic­al glor­i­fic­a­tion of labor and has res­ul­ted in an ac­tu­al trans­form­a­tion of the whole of so­ci­ety in­to a la­bor­ing so­ci­ety. The ful­fill­ment of the wish, there­fore, like the ful­fill­ment of wishes in fairy tales, comes at a mo­ment when it can only be self-de­feat­ing. It is a so­ci­ety of laborers which is about to be lib­er­ated from the fet­ters of labor [by tech­nic­al auto­ma­tion], and this so­ci­ety does no longer know of those oth­er high­er and more mean­ing­ful activ­it­ies for the sake of which this free­dom would de­serve to be won. With­in this so­ci­ety, which is egal­it­ari­an be­cause this is labor’s way of mak­ing men live to­geth­er, there is no class left, no ar­is­to­cracy of either a polit­ic­al or spir­itu­al nature from which a res­tor­a­tion of the oth­er ca­pa­cit­ies of man could start anew. Even pres­id­ents, kings, and prime min­is­ters think of their of­fices in terms of a job ne­ces­sary for the life of so­ci­ety, and among the in­tel­lec­tu­als, only sol­it­ary in­di­vidu­als are left who con­sider what they are do­ing in terms of work and not in terms of mak­ing a liv­ing. What we are con­fron­ted with is the pro­spect of a so­ci­ety of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activ­ity left to them. Surely, noth­ing could be worse. (The Hu­man Con­di­tion [Vita Ac­tiva], 1958.)

Com­pare this to what Heide­g­ger offered in Nazi-era lec­tures on “Over­com­ing meta­phys­ics,” that, “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” (The End of Philo­sophy, ed. and trans. Joan Stam­baugh [Uni­versity of Chica­go Press, 2003], 87); and, in “The End of Philo­sophy and the Task of Think­ing” (1964), the place of Marx in this pro­cess: “With the re­versal of meta­phys­ics which was already ac­com­plished by Karl Marx, the most ex­treme pos­sib­il­ity of philo­sophy is at­tained” (Ba­sic Writ­ings, ed. Dav­id Far­rell Krell [New York: Har­per­Collins, 1993], 433 ). But this was Heide­g­ger blam­ing Marx­ism and the “meta­phys­ics of labor” cham­pioned polit­ic­ally by the bour­geois re­volt of the Third Es­tate and in­her­ited by the work­ers’ move­ment for so­cial­ism, without re­cog­niz­ing as Marx did the self-con­tra­dict­ory char­ac­ter in cap­it­al­ism; Heide­g­ger, for whom “only a god can still save us” (1966 in­ter­view in Der Spiegel, pub­lished posthum­ously May 31, 1976), and Aren­dt fol­low­ing him, de­mon­ized tech­no­lo­gized so­ci­ety as a dead-end of “West­ern meta­phys­ics” al­legedly go­ing back to the So­crat­ic turn of ‘sci­ence” fol­lowed by Pla­to and Ar­is­totle in Clas­sic­al An­tiquity, rather than re­cog­niz­ing it as a symp­tom of the need to trans­form so­ci­ety, cap­it­al­ism and its need for so­cial­ism as a trans­ition­al con­di­tion of his­tory.

This was the res­ult­ing flat “con­tra­dic­tion” that re­placed the pri­or “dia­lect­ic­al” con­tra­dic­tion of “pro­let­ari­an so­cial­ism” re­cog­nized by Marx­ism, whose the­or­et­ic­al re­cov­ery, in the con­text of the crisis of Marx­ism in the move­ment from the 2nd to 3rd In­ter­na­tion­als, had been at­temp­ted by Lukács and Korsch. What Aren­dt called merely the (ob­ject­ive) “hu­man con­di­tion,” the “vita ac­tiva” and its per­verse ni­hil­ist­ic des­tiny in mod­ern so­ci­ety, was, once, the (sub­ject­ive) “dia­lect­ic­al,” self-con­tra­dict­ory “stand­point of the pro­let­ari­at” in Marx­ism, as the “class con­scious­ness” of his­tory: the his­tor­ic­al need for the pro­let­ari­at to over­come and ab­ol­ish it­self as a class, in­clud­ing its own stand­point of “con­scious­ness,” its re­gress­ive bour­geois de­mand to re­appro­pri­ate the value of labor in cap­it­al­ism, which would both real­ize and neg­ate the “bour­geois right” of the value of labor in so­ci­ety. So­cial­ism was re­cog­nized by Marx­ism as the rais­ing and ad­van­cing of the self-con­tra­dic­tion of cap­it­al­ism to the “next stage,” mo­tiv­ated by the ne­ces­sity and pos­sib­il­ity for “com­mun­ism.” What Aren­dt could only ap­pre­hend as a bale­ful te­los, the so­ci­ety of labor over­com­ing it­self, Marx­ism once re­cog­nized as the need for re­volu­tion, to ad­vance the con­tra­dic­tion in so­cial­ism.

When Marx­ists such as Ad­orno or Lukács can only sound to us like Aren­dt (or Heide­g­ger!), this is be­cause we no longer live in the re­volu­tion. Ad­orno:

Ac­cord­ing to [Marx­ist] the­ory, his­tory is the his­tory of class struggles. But the concept of class is bound up with the emer­gence of the pro­let­ari­at…If all the op­pres­sion that man has ever in­flic­ted upon man cul­min­ates in the cold in­hu­man­ity of free wage labor, then…the ar­cha­ic si­lence of pyr­am­ids and ru­ins be­comes con­scious of it­self in ma­ter­i­al­ist thought: it is the echo of fact­ory noise in the land­scape of the im­mut­able…This means, however, that de­hu­man­iz­a­tion is also its op­pos­ite. In re­ified hu­man be­ings re­ific­a­tion finds its out­er lim­its…Only when the vic­tims com­pletely as­sume the fea­tures of the rul­ing civil­iz­a­tion will they be cap­able of wrest­ing them from the dom­in­ant power…Even if the dy­nam­ic at work was al­ways the same, its end today is not the end. (“Re­flec­tions on Class The­ory,” 1942.)


[As Hegel said,] dir­ectly be­fore the emer­gence of something qual­it­at­ively new, the old state of af­fairs gath­ers it­self up in­to its ori­gin­al, purely gen­er­al, es­sence, in­to its simple to­tal­ity, tran­scend­ing and ab­sorb­ing back in­to it­self all those marked dif­fer­ences and pe­cu­li­ar­it­ies which it evinced when it was still vi­able…[I]n the age of the dis­sol­u­tion of cap­it­al­ism, the fet­ish­ist­ic cat­egor­ies col­lapse and it be­comes ne­ces­sary to have re­course to the “nat­ur­al form” un­der­ly­ing them…As the ant­ag­on­ism be­comes more acute two pos­sib­il­it­ies open up for the pro­let­ari­at. It is giv­en the op­por­tun­ity to sub­sti­tute its own pos­it­ive con­tents for the emp­tied and burst­ing husks. But also it is ex­posed to the danger that for a time at least it might ad­apt it­self ideo­lo­gic­ally to con­form to these, the emp­ti­est and most dec­ad­ent forms of bour­geois cul­ture. (“Re­ific­a­tion and the con­scious­ness of the pro­let­ari­at,”His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness, 1923.)

Why still “philo­sophy?”

The prob­lem today is that we are not faced with the self-con­tra­dic­tion of the pro­let­ari­at’s struggle for so­cial­ism in the polit­ic­al prob­lem of the “re­ified forms” of the work­ing class sub­sti­tut­ing for those of bour­geois so­ci­ety in its “dec­ad­ence.” We re­play the re­volt of the Third Es­tate and its de­mands for the so­cial value of labor — at best, but, really, re­peat the early bour­geois Prot­est­ant Chris­ti­an de­mand for so­cial “justice,” however more neb­u­lously. We do not have oc­ca­sion to re­cog­nize the “empti­ness” of bour­geois so­cial re­la­tions of labor, its value evac­u­ated by tech­nic­al but not polit­ic­al tran­scend­ence. In­deed, now we have lost sight of the prob­lem of “re­ific­a­tion” at all as Lukács meant it.

As Hegel schol­ar Robert Pip­pin has re­cently con­cluded, in a for­mu­la­tion that is em­in­ently agree­able to Korsch’s per­spect­ive on the con­tinu­ation of philo­sophy as a symp­tom of failed trans­form­a­tion of so­ci­ety, in an es­say ad­dress­ing how, by con­trast with the ori­gin­al “Left-Hegel­i­an, Marx­ist, Frank­furt school tra­di­tion,” “the prob­lem with con­tem­por­ary crit­ic­al the­ory is that it has be­come in­suf­fi­ciently crit­ic­al”: “Per­haps [philo­sophy] ex­ists to re­mind us we haven’t got­ten any­where” (“On Crit­ic­al In­quiry and crit­ic­al the­ory: A short his­tory of non-be­ing,” Crit­ic­al In­quiry 30 [Winter 2004], 416-417). The ques­tion is the prop­er role of crit­ic­al the­ory and “philo­soph­ic­al” ques­tions in polit­ics. In the ab­sence of Marx­ism, oth­er think­ing is called to ad­dress this — for in­stance, Aren­dt (or worse: see Carl Schmitt).

Re­cog­niz­ing the po­ten­tial polit­ic­al ab­use of “philo­sophy” does not mean, however, that we must agree with Heide­g­ger, that, “Philo­sophy will not be able to bring about a dir­ect change of the present state of the world” (Der Spiegel in­ter­view). Es­pe­cially since Marx­ism is not only (a his­tory of) a form of polit­ics, but also, as the Hegel and Frank­furt School schol­ar Gil­lian Rose put it, a “mode of cog­ni­tion sui gen­er­is” (re­view of the Eng­lish trans­la­tion of Ad­orno’s Neg­at­ive Dia­lectics [1973] in The Amer­ic­an Polit­ic­al Sci­ence Re­view 70.2 [June 1976], 598-599). This is be­cause, as the late 19th cen­tury so­ci­olo­gist Émile Durkheim put it, (bour­geois) so­ci­ety is an “ob­ject of cog­ni­tion sui gen­er­is.” Fur­ther­more, cap­it­al­ism is a prob­lem of so­cial trans­form­a­tion sui gen­er­is — one with which we still might struggle, at least hope­fully! Marx­ism is hence a mode of polit­ics sui gen­er­is — one whose his­tor­ic­al memory has be­come very ob­scure. This is above all a prac­tic­al prob­lem, but one which re­gisters also “philo­soph­ic­ally” in “the­ory.”

The prob­lem of what Rousseau called the “re­flect­ive” and Kant and Hegel, after Rousseau, called the “spec­u­lat­ive” re­la­tion of the­ory and prac­tice in bour­geois so­ci­ety’s crisis in cap­it­al­ism, re­cog­nized once by his­tor­ic­al Marx­ism as the crit­ic­al self-con­scious­ness of pro­let­ari­an so­cial­ism and its self-con­tra­dic­tions, has not gone away but was only driv­en un­der­ground. The re­volu­tion ori­gin­at­ing in the bour­geois era in the 17th and 18th cen­tur­ies that gave rise to the mod­ern philo­sophy of free­dom in Rousseau­ian En­light­en­ment and Ger­man Ideal­ism and that ad­vanced to new prob­lems in the In­dus­tri­al Re­volu­tion and the pro­let­ari­an­iz­a­tion of so­ci­ety, per­vert­ing “bour­geois right” in­to a form of dom­in­a­tion rather than eman­cip­a­tion, and ex­pressed through the Bona­partist state’s per­ver­sion of demo­cracy, which was re­cog­nized by Marx­ism in the 19th cen­tury but failed in the 20th cen­tury, may still task us.

This is why we might, still, be read­ing Lukács. | §

Back­ground read­ings:

Read­ings for teach-in on the Com­mun­ist Party of Great Bri­tain’s cam­paign against Lukács and its stakes for Platy­pus as a project.

Mike Macnair, “The philo­sophy trap” 11/21/13
Chris Cutrone, “De­fend­ing Marx­ist Hegel­ian­ism against a Marx­ist cri­tique” 8/11/11
Georg Lukács, Ori­gin­al Pre­face (1922) to His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness (1923)

Art­icles in ex­change ori­gin­ally pub­lished in Weekly Work­er Janu­ary 24-March 14, 2013. [PDF]

James Tur­ley, “The an­ti­nom­ies of Georg Lukács” 1/24/13
Chris Cutrone, “Re­gres­sion” 1/31/13
James Tur­ley, “Dummy” 2/21/13
Chris Cutrone, “Nota bene” 2/28/13
James Tur­ley, “Ba­con” 3/7/13
Lawrence Park­er, “Lukács re­loaded” 3/7/13
Chris Cutrone, “Un­re­loaded” 3/14/13

Sup­ple­ment­al read­ing:

Chris Cutrone, “Gil­lian Rose’s ‘Hegel­i­an’ cri­tique of Marx­ism” 3/1/10

4 thoughts on “Why read Lukács? The place of “philosophical” questions in Marxism

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