Thursday, September 08, 2005

Georg Lukacs

from History & Class Consciousness
Preface to the New Edition, 1967

Looking back at it now I see that, for all its romantic anti-capitalistic overtones, the ethical idealism I took from Hegel made a number of real contributions to the picture of the world that emerged after this crisis…Mental confusion is not always chaos. It may strengthen the internal contradictions for the time being but in the long run it will lead to their resolution. Thus my ethics tended in the direction of praxis, action and hence towards politics…Our enthusiasm was a very makeshift substitute for knowledge and experience…Our magazine strove to propagate a messianic sectarianism by working out the most radical methods on every issue, and by proclaiming a total break with every institution and mode of life stemming from the bourgeois world… It is at this point that the objective internal contradictions in my political and philosophical views come into the open… I found myself adopting an intellectual attitude dictated, by life-itself, that conflicted sharply with the idealism and utopianism of my revolutionary messianism…History and Class Consciousness was born in the midst of the crises of this transitional period. It was written in 1922.

In these and similarly problematical premises we see the result of a failure to subject the Hegelian heritage to a thoroughgoing materialist reinterpretation and hence to transcend and preserve it…But whereas Lenin really brought about a renewal of the Marxian method my efforts resulted in a Hegelian distortion, in which I put the totality in the centre of the system, overriding the priority of economics! “It is not the primacy of economic motives in historical explanation that constitutes the decisive difference between Marxism and bourgeois science, but the point of view of totality.’’ This methodological paradox was intensified further by the fact that the totality was seen as the conceptual embodiment of the revolutionary principle in science. “The primacy of the category of totality is the bearer of the revolutionary principle in science.”

There is no doubt that such paradoxes of method played a not unimportant and in many ways very progressive role in the impact of History and Class Consciousness on later thought. For the revival of Hegel’s dialectics struck a hard blow at the revisionist tradition. Already Bernstein had wished to dominate everything reminiscent of Hegel’s dialectics in the name of ‘science’. And nothing was further from the mind of his philosophical opponents, and above all Kautsky, than the wish to undertake the defence of this tradition. For anyone wishing to return to the revolutionary traditions of Marxism the revival of the Hegelian traditions was obligatory.

History and Class Consciousness represents what was perhaps the most radical attempt to restore the revolutionary nature of Marx’s theories by renovating and extending Hegel’s dialectics and method. The task was made even more important by the fact that bourgeois philosophy at the time showed signs of a growing interest in Hegel. Of course they never succeeded in making Hegel’s breach with Kant the foundation of their analysis and, on the other hand, they were influenced by Dilthey’s attempts to construct theoretical bridges between Hegelian dialectics and modern irrationalism. A little while after the appearance of History and Class Consciousness Kroner described Hegel as the greatest irrationalist of all time and in Lowith’s later studies Marx and Kierkegaard were to emerge as parallel phenomena out of the dissolution of Hegelianism. It is by contrast with all these developments that we can best see the relevance of History and Class Consciousness.

Another fact contributing to its importance to the ideology of the radical workers’ movement was that whereas Plekhanov and others had vastly overestimated Feuerbach’s role as an intermediary between Hegel and Marx, this was relegated to the background here. Anticipating the publication of Lenin’s later philosophical studies by some years, it was nevertheless only somewhat later, in the essay on Moses Hess, that I explicitly argued that Marx followed directly from Hegel. However, this position is contained implicitly in many of the discussions in History and Class Consciousness.

In a necessarily brief summary it is not possible to undertake a concrete criticism of all the issues raised by the book, and to show how far the interpretation of Hegel it contained was a source of confusion and how far it pointed towards the future. The contemporary reader who is qualified to criticise will certainly find evidence of both tendencies. To assess the impact of the book at that time, and also its relevance today, we must consider one problem that surpasses in its importance all questions of detail. This is the question of alienation, which, for the first time since Marx, is treated as central to the revolutionary critique of capitalism and which has its theoretical and methodological roots in the Hegelian dialectic.Of course the problem was in the air at the time. Some years later, following the publication of Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927), it moved into the centre of philosophical debate. Even today it has not lost this position, largely because of the influence of Sartre, his followers and his opponents.
The philosophical problem raised above all by Lucien Goldmann when he interpreted Heidegger’s work in part as a polemical reply to mine – which however was not mentioned explicitly – can be left on one side here. The statement that the problem was in the air is perfectly adequate, particularly as it is not possible to discuss the reasons for this here and to lay bare the mixture of Marxist and Existentialist ideas that were so influential after World War II, especially in France. The question of who was first and who influenced whom is not particularly interesting here. What is important is that the alienation of man is a crucial problem of the age in which we live and is recognised as such by both bourgeois and proletarian thinkers, by commentators on both right and left. Hence History and Class Consciousness had a profound impact in youthful intellectual circles; I know of a whole host of good Communists who were won over to the movement by this very fact. Without a doubt the fact that this Marxist and Hegelian question was taken up by a Communist was one reason why the impact of the book went far beyond the limits of the party.

As to the way in which the problem was actually dealt with, it is not hard to see today that it was treated in purely Hegelian terms. In particular its ultimate philosophical foundation is the identical subject-object that realises itself in the historical process. Of course, in Hegel it arises in a purely logical and philosophical form when the highest stage of absolute spirit is attained in philosophy by abolishing alienation and by the return of self-consciousness to itself, thus realising the identical subject-object. In History and Class Consciousness, however, this process is socio-historical and it culminates when the proletariat reaches this stage in its class consciousness, thus becoming the identical subject-object of history. This does indeed appear to ‘stand Hegel on his feet’; it appears as if the logico-metaphysical construction of the Phenomenology of Mind had found its authentic realisation in the existence and the consciousness of the proletariat. And this appears in turn to provide a philosophical foundation for the proletariat’s efforts to form a classless society through revolution and to conclude the ‘prehistory’ of mankind. But is the identical subject-object here anything more in truth than a purely metaphysical construct ? Can a genuinely identical subject-object be created by self-knowledge, however adequate, and however truly based on an adequate knowledge of society, i.e. however perfect that self-knowledge is?
We need only formulate the question precisely to see that it must be answered in the negative. For even when the content of knowledge is referred back to the knowing subject, this does not mean that the act of cognition is thereby freed of its alienated nature. In the Phenomenology of Mind, Hegel rightly dismisses the notion of a mystical and irrationalistic realisation of the identical subject-object, of Schelling’s ‘intellectual intuition’, calling instead for a philosophical and rational solution to the problem. His healthy sense of reality induced him to leave the matter at this juncture; his very general system does indeed culminate in the vision of such a realisation but he never shows in concrete terms how it might be achieved. Thus the proletariat seen as the identical subject-object of the real history of mankind is no materialist consummation that overcomes the constructions of idealism. It is rather an attempt to out-Hegel Hegel, it is an edifice boldly erected above every possible reality and thus attempts objectively to surpass the Master himself.

Hegel’s reluctance to commit himself on this point is the product of the wrong-headedness of his basic concept. For it is in Hegel that we first encounter alienation as the fundamental problem of the place of man in the world and vis-à-vis the world. However, in the term alienation he includes every type of objectification Thus ‘alienation’ when taken to its logical conclusion is identical with objectification. Therefore, when the identical subject-object transcends alienation it must also transcend objectification at the same time. But as, according to Hegel, the object, the thing exists only as an alienation from self-consciousness, to take it back into the subject would mean the end of objective reality and thus of any reality at all. History and Class Consciousness follows Hegel in that it too equates alienation with objectification (to use the term employed by Marx in the Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts). This fundamental and crude error has certainly contributed greatly to the success enjoyed by History and Class Consciousness. The unmasking of alienation by philosophy was in the air, as we have remarked, and it soon became a central problem in the type of cultural criticism that undertook to scrutinise the condition of man in contemporary capitalism. In the philosophical, cultural criticism of the bourgeoisie (and we need look no further than Heidegger), it was natural to sublimate a critique of society into a purely philosophical problem, i.e. to convert an essentially social alienation into an eternal ‘condition humaine’, to use a term not coined until somewhat later. It is evident that History and Class Consciousness met such attitudes half-way, even though its intentions had been different and indeed opposed to them. For when I identified alienation with objectification I meant this as a societal category – socialism would after all abolish alienation – but its irreducible presence in class society and above all its basis in philosophy brought it into the vicinity of the ‘condition humaine’.

This follows from the frequently stressed false identification of opposed fundamental categories. For objectification is indeed a phenomenon that cannot be eliminated from human life in society. If we bear in mind that every externalisation of an object in practice (and hence, too, in work) is an objectification that every human expression including speech objectifies human thoughts and feelings, then it is clear that we are dealing with a universal mode of commerce between men. And in so far as this is the case, objectification is a natural phenomenon; the true is as much an objectification as the false, liberation as much as enslavement. Only when the objectified forms in society acquire functions that bring the essence of man into conflict with his existence, only when man’s nature is subjugated, deformed and crippled can we speak of an objective societal condition of alienation and, as an inexorable consequence, of all the subjective marks of an internal alienation.
This duality was not acknowledged in History and Class Consciousness. And this is why it is so wide of the mark in its basic view of the history of philosophy. (We note in passing that the phenomenon of reification is closely related to that of alienation but is neither socially nor conceptually identical with it; here the two words were used synonymously.) This critique of the basic concepts cannot hope to be comprehensive. But even in an account as brief as this mention must be made of my rejection of the view that knowledge is reflection. This had two sources. The first was my deep abhorrence of the mechanistic fatalism which was the normal concomitant of reflection theory in mechanistic materialism. Against this my messianic utopianism, the predominance of praxis in my thought rebelled in passionate protest – a protest that, once again, was not wholly misguided. In the second place I recognised the way in which praxis had its origins and its roots in work. The most primitive kind of work, such as the quarrying of stones by primeval man, implies a correct reflection of the reality he is concerned with. For no purposive activity can be carried out in the absence of an image, however crude, of the practical reality involved. Practice can only be a fulfilment and a criterion of theory when it is based on what is held to be a correct reflection of reality. It would be unrewarding at this point to detail the arguments that justify rejecting the analogy with photography which is so prevalent in the current debate on reflection theories.

Budapest, March 1967.

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