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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