Lukács’ abyss

Jeremy Co­han
Platy­pus Re­view
Au­gust 1, 2011

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 stoppedbe­ing 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 in the “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, canit­self 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.

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Revolution into reaction: June 1848 to August 1914

Classical liberalism, understood as the ideology of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, has for more than a century now been ossified and reactionary.  Just as Marx noticed circa 1830 that traditional bourgeois economics had begun a “transition from ‘disinterested research’ to ‘apologetics,’” becoming “vulgar economics” in the process, a similar transition was taking place within the sphere of bourgeois politics.[246]  Political liberalism only revealed its bankruptcy during the 1848 revolutions, however.  Events such as the Dutch Revolt of 1566, the Great Rebellion throughout the British Isles after 1640, its consolidation during the constitutional coup d’état of 1688, the American War of Independence of 1776, the Great French Revolution of 1789, all the way up to the July Monarchy of 1830 — in each of these moments, “[t]he bourgeoisie …played a highly revolutionary role.”[247]

The political disturbances that transpired in February 1848 seemed at first simply the continuation of this prior revolutionary pattern.  In June of that year, however, bourgeois-liberal politics faltered.  At this moment, liberal luminaries like François Guizot, Alexis de Tocqueville, Adolphe Thiers, and Odilon Barrot all threw in their lot with the Parti de l’Ordreagainst the proletarian insurrection in Paris.[248]  With Guizot and Thiers, who had become staunch defenders of the status quo ever since they received ministerial positions from Louis Philippe (the “citizen-king”) in 1832, this was perhaps to be expected.  Even then, Thiers — “that monstrous gnome,” as Marx later referred to him[249] — had been Guizot’s chief rival under the Orléanist regime.[250]  Guizot had already by that time come to be considered an extreme conservative in the estimation of most liberals.  Tocqueville despised both men.  So even within the liberal camp, it seems, there was a great deal of tension and variation.  Many of its leading political representatives were still at that time regarded as consistent, forward-thinking advocates of civic freedom, with unimpeachable records serving in public office.  So what became of liberalism’s project of emancipation after this point? Where did its historical commitment to the advancement of libertarian and egalitarian principles go, exactly?

These questions become that much more difficult to answer from the standpoint of the present.  Liberal-bourgeois ideology has been counterrevolutionary for so long now that many have started to wonder if was ever revolutionary at all.  Authors such as Isaac Deutscher,[251] and more recently Eric Hobsbawm and Neil Davidson, have done much to combat this “revisionist” tendency.[252]  All the same, the issue of explaining the transfer of the revolutionary mantle from the bourgeoisie to the proletariat — i.e., from liberalism to socialism — remains.  To adopt Losurdo’s terminology, the relationship of liberalism to radicalism must be determined.  In other words, did one emerge from the other? Or were the two tendencies wholly distinct, historically and conceptually unrelated? Losurdo rules emphatically in favor of the latter.  As he sees it, liberalism and radicalism came out of completely separate origins — arising sui generis (and “ne’er the twain shall meet,” as it were).  Losurdo finds in liberalism no internal dynamism, no motive force of its own.  He thus writes with confidence that “we…must bid farewell once and for all to the myth of the gradual, peaceful transition, on the basis of purely internal motivations and impulses, from liberalism to democracy, or from general enjoyment of negative liberty to an ever wider recognition of political rights.”  Instead, as Losurdo asserts, this wider recognition was only achieved through outside pressures.  “The process of emancipation,” he claims, “very often had a spur completely external to the liberal world.”[253]

By treating radicalism — a category that includes most forms of utopian socialism, anarchism, and Marxism — as utterly exogenous to liberalism, one misses the moment in which (in an almost Hegelian transformation of something into its opposite)[254] liberalism itself became illiberal.  This moment, as stated, is June 1848.  Here the liberal worldview as a project of emancipation finally stalled out, unable to attain to the precedent it had set in 1789.  Later radicals such as Marx, Lenin, and Trotskii never tired of reminding the liberal bourgeoisie of its own revolutionary past.  In the thick of the Russian Revolution of 1905, Lenin remarked that the prospect that most haunted the liberal bourgeois in his time was “the tremendous dangers of the ‘road’ of 1789! The bourgeois has no objection to the path taken by Germany in 1848, but he will exert ‘every effort’ to avoid the path taken by France.”  The difference between the paths traversed in 1789 and 1848, he felt, was instructive.  “What is the radical difference between the two roads?” the Bolshevik leader asked rhetorically.  He immediately continued: “It is that the bourgeois-democratic revolution carried out by France in 1789, and by Germany in 1848, was brought to its consummation in the first case, but not in the second.”[255]  In his own reflection on 1905, Results and Prospects, Trotskii — then Lenin’s political rival — raised a similar point.  He bitterly excoriated the counterrevolutionary senility of bourgeois liberals in his day, proudly proclaiming that, for all its criticisms of the Terror, it was the socialist proletariat that displayed greater fidelity to the revolutionary tradition of the liberal bourgeoisie:

Jacobinism is now a term of reproach on the lips of all liberal wiseacres.  Bourgeois hatred of revolution, its hatred towards the masses, hatred of the force and grandeur of the history that is made in the streets, is concentrated in one cry of indignation and fear — Jacobinism! We, the world army of Communism, have long ago made our historical reckoning with Jacobinism.  The whole of the present international proletarian movement was formed and grew strong in the struggle against the traditions of Jacobinism.  We subjected its theories to criticism, we exposed its historical limitations, its social contradictoriness, its utopianism…

But we defend Jacobinism against the attacks, the calumny, and the stupid vituperations of anemic, phlegmatic liberalism.  The bourgeoisie has shamefully betrayed all the traditions of its historical youth, and its present hirelings dishonor the graves of its ancestors and scoff at the ashes of their ideals.  The proletariat has taken the honor of the revolutionary past of the bourgeoisie under its protection.  The proletariat, however radically it may have, in practice, broken with the revolutionary traditions of the bourgeoisie, nevertheless preserves them, as a sacred heritage of great passions, heroism, and initiative, and its heart beats in sympathy with the speeches and acts of the Jacobin Convention.[256]

The Left, born amidst the fire and tumult of 1789-1793, retained its status as the Parti du mouvement in 1848, committed to furthering social reforms and spreading revolution.  By contrast, the liberal establishment turned its back on the task of transforming society — a task that remains incomplete to this day.  In so doing, any truth it might once have held has passed into falsity.  Proletarian socialism, if Trotskii is to be believed, raised high the banner of revolution that bourgeois liberalism had let fall.  Betraying the revolutionary ideals it once held, the ensconced bourgeoisie have since then fought merely to preserve the state of affairs it already brought about.  Rather than allow for the fuller realization of human freedom, liberalism has stubbornly resisted attempts to bring the transformation it originally set in motion to its logical conclusion.  As Marx was able to witness firsthand, liberal bourgeois ideology arrived at a crossroads in 1848.  The path it took at this point is widely known.  Liberalism was turned on its head, and drifted from Left to Right.  It went from fostering revolution to sanctioning reaction.

Even then, not all liberals joined the camp of counterrevolution.  The famous Russian émigré Aleksandr Herzen, whom Lenin later commemorated, lived through this changing of the revolutionary guard, as it passed from the hands of bourgeois liberalism to those of proletarian socialism in June 1848.  Though Russian liberals hoped in 1912 to enlist his memory to their cause, celebrating the centenary of his birth, they fell silent on the crisis of faith he experienced in that year.[257]  This crisis arose out of his disbelief and dismay at the series of events that unfolded in the streets of Paris during those summer months.[258]  Though he could not have known the full breadth of the catastrophe, Herzen nevertheless intuitively felt that something had gone deeply, terribly wrong.  More than a month after the massacre, he was still desperately struggling to make sense of what had happened.  “Paris shot people without trial…What will be the outcome of this bloodshed?” wondered Herzen.  Unsure what was to come, he welcomed revolutionary violence in order to clear the path to the future: “[I]t is enough that in this fury of madness, of revenge, of conflict and retribution, the world which stands in the way of the new man, preventing him from living and establishing the future, will fall…So, long live chaos and destruction! Vive la mort! And let the future come!”[259]  Lenin, having the benefit of more than six decades of perspective, was thus able to recognize what Herzen could not: namely, that liberalism had here run aground of the basic antagonism of industrial society — the mortal struggle of capital against wage-labor.  “Herzen’s spiritual shipwreck, his deep skepticism and pessimism after 1848, was a shipwreck of the bourgeois illusions of socialism,” recorded Lenin.  “[His] spiritual drama was a product and reflection of that epoch in world history when the revolutionary character of the bourgeois democrats was already passing away, while the revolutionary character of the socialist proletariat had not yet matured.”[260]  Cutrone parses this twofold recognition as follows:

What made the 1848 Revolution so important to Marx and subsequent Marxism was the light that it shed on the history of the bourgeois revolution.  1848 was both the last of the classical bourgeois revolutions and the first of the socialist revolutions that have marked the modern, bourgeois era. Henceforth, the fates of liberalism and socialism have been indissolubly tied — even if their connection has been extremely fraught.  Liberalism could not do without socialism, nor socialism without liberalism.  Every democratic revolution since 1848 has faced this twofold task — and has, without exception, foundered on the shoals of its contradictions.  Marxism was the attempt to transcend the antinomy of individual and collective freedom…to realize both, by transcending both…The twin fates of liberalism and socialism after 1848 have shared in the failure of this Marxist vision for emancipation.[261]

Herzen, until then a convinced liberal, was dismayed by what was happening before him.  The proletarians were simply demanding what the liberals had hitherto promised to them, and yet now clearly liberalism found itself powerless to live up to the promises they had made.  The liberal response to this feeling of impotence, as Herzen witnessed firsthand, was to shoot down anyone who dared to raise his hand in protest.  “The liberals were satisfied, but the people were not and raised their voices: they repeated the words and promises of the liberals who now…began killing as soon as they saw that matters took a serious turn,” Herzen mordantly remarked.[262]  Tocqueville, who was terrified by the June insurgency, nevertheless saw it for what it was.  In a letter to his friend Paul Clamorgan, he maintained: “[This] is not a riot; it is the most terrible of all civil wars, the war of class against class, of those who have nothing against those who have.”[263]

Even many leftists who had initially supported the revolutionary events in February experienced similar shock and disillusionment following the June revolt.  The renowned anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, an enthusiastic participant in the overthrow of Louis-Philippe that occurred earlier that year, prayed for a moratorium on any further violence after this point.  Proudhon could only stand idly by, however, as the “liberal” government issued the order for the proletarian insurrection to be violently suppressed.  What made matters even worse for Proudhon was the fact that he was a member of government.  Having been elected — along with the future emperor Louis-Napoleon and the novelist Victor Hugo — into the National Assembly that same month, Proudhon remained aloof of the struggle in the streets.[264]  He later came to regret his noncommittal attitude toward the entire affair.  In his aptly titled Confessions of a Revolutionary (1849), Proudhon thus addressed his accuser, Antoine Sénard.  “No, M. Sénard, I was not a coward in June, the insult you threw at me before the assembly,” he wrote, pleading ignorance.  “Like you and many others, I was an imbecile.  I was lacking in my duties as a representative due to a parliamentary stupor.  I was there to see, but I did not see.”[265]  By contrast, Marx’s own assessment of 1848 and its political afterlife was mercilessly critical.  He later famously quipped that the whole drama of 1848 had been nothing more than a farcical repeat of the original tragedy of 1789.[266]  Marx was generally unimpressed by the actual achievements of the 1848 revolutions.  Far more important than what they accomplished, however, was what they revealed.  As Marx recollected in an 1856 address,

[t]he so-called revolutions of 1848 were but poor incidents — small fractures and fissures in the dry crust of European society.  However, they denounced the abyss.  Beneath the apparently solid surface, they betrayed oceans of liquid matter, only needing expansion to rend into fragments continents of hard rock.  Noisily and confusedly they proclaimed the emancipation of the proletarian, i.e. the secret of the nineteenth century, and of the revolution of that century.  That social revolution, it is true, was no novelty invented in 1848.  Steam, electricity, and the self-acting mule were revolutionists of a rather more dangerous character than even citizens Barbès, Raspail, and Blanqui…[But] European society before 1848 [had just barely] felt the revolutionary atmosphere enveloping and pressing it from all sides.[267]

The abyss of which Marx spoke in this passage was the abyss of bourgeois society itself.  No sooner had the French “people” banded together against Louis Philippe than the fault-lines of class began to appear.  Lenin, in the context of 1905, would later describe how this opposition within society was manifested in Russia in the struggle against tsarism.  This opposition, he wrote, formed an unbridgeable “chasm” dividing society from itself.  “The revolution Russia is going through is a revolution of the entire people,” he happily conceded, with shades of liberal populism.  “However,” he added, “this society, which now seems a united whole…is itself irremediably split by the chasm between capital and labor.  The people that have risen against the autocracy are not a united people.”[268]  By highlighting this division, Lenin was only raising Marx’s basic insight regarding the class character of modern society.  This one foundational insight, which the bourgeois-liberal revolutionaries could not have possibly perceived, was that there is no “people” as such.  Civil society is comprised of mutually antagonistic forces — capital and labor foremost among them.  The contradictory nature of modern society was thus laid bare:

There is one great fact, characteristic of this, our nineteenth century, a fact which no party dares deny.  On the one hand, there have started into life industrial and scientific forces, which no epoch of the former human history had ever suspected.  On the other hand, there exist symptoms of decay, far surpassing the horrors recorded of the latter times of the Roman Empire.  In our days, everything seems pregnant with its contrary.  Machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labor, we behold starving and overworking it.  The newfangled sources of wealth, by some weird spell, are turned into sources of want.  The victories of art seem bought by the loss of character.  At the same pace that mankind masters nature, man seems to become enslaved to other men or to his own infamy.  Even the pure light of science seems unable to shine but on the dark background of ignorance.

All our invention and progress seem to result in endowing material forces with intellectual life, and in stultifying human life into a material force.  [T]his antagonism between the productive powers and the social relations of our epoch is a fact — palpable, overwhelming, and not to be controverted.  Some parties may wail over it; others may wish to get rid of modern arts, in order to get rid of modern conflicts.  Or they may imagine that…progress in industry…signal[s] a regress in politics…We know that [in order for] the newfangled forces of society [to work well], they only want to be mastered by newfangled men — and such are the workingmen.  They are as much the invention of modern time as machinery itself…, the first-born sons of modern industry.  They will, then, certainly not be the last in aiding the social revolution produced by that industry, a revolution, which means the emancipation of their own class all over the world, which is as universal as capital and wage-slavery…History is the judge — its executioner, the proletarian.[269]

These antagonisms tear at the social fabric; bottomless depths are revealed.  This “abyss,” over which the whole of society is thinly stretched, has in fact been carried over from the many accounts that the bourgeoisie left unsettled in the balance sheet of world history.  “Marx understood the problem of his — and our — epoch as the unfinished bourgeois revolution,” Jeremy Cohan astutely notes, “whose gains would be meaningful only from the standpoint of redemption — what Lukács called the standpoint of the proletariat.”  Redemption here should be understood in its strictest etymological sense, as “payback,” a balancing of accounts, a settling of scores.  But this historical vantage point cannot for a moment be considered terra firma; in history, there can be no permanent or solid ground.  Already for Lukács, Cohan writes, this position had become severely attenuated: “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.”[270]

By the first decades of the twentieth century, humanity had been brought to the brink.  “[I]n August, 1914, the accumulated antagonisms…tore to pieces the ‘peaceful’ cloak of capitalism,” Trotskii reflected in 1919.  “From the heights of civilization mankind found itself hurled into an abyss of terrifying barbarism and bloodstained savagery.”[271]  Insofar as the attempt to foment a world revolution in 1917 failed to extricate humanity from this abyss, however, the question must be asked: Has humanity yet emerged?

Continue to Conclusion: The Truth of Liberalism