Tag Archives: Lukacs

Class Consciousness and the Party

How and when to form new political parties seems to be very much in the news at the moment. The relationship between the Party and the wider movement has preoccupied Marxist thinking for quite some time too, ranging from the Bolshevik “vanguard” party of committed revolutionaries to the mass membership parties of the Second International.

Underpinning which form of party organisation is considered to be effective are theories of revolutionary class consciousness. The Leninist conception of a vanguard party implies that left to itself a mass membership party will never become radical enough to spontaneously overthrow the status quo in a violent revolution. The solution for Lenin was to create a party at a distance from the working class itself, which could therefore develop a consciousness and commitment to the revolution and provide a lead to the wider working class from “outside” as it were. The vanguard party would be more radical than the working class and when the time came it would provide a lead.

It is this assumption that the party knows better than the workers themselves that forms one basis for the criticism levelled at Lukacs by Kolakowski among others. Lukacs writes about the class consciousness that can be “imputed” to the working class, the consciousness that the workers “ought” to have based on the Marxist analysis of economy and society. To Kolakowski this is an intellectual justification for the repressive Stalinist dictatorship, justifying his chapter title that Lukacs represents “reason in the service of dogma” (Kolakowski 2008 p. 989). Once we accept that the party has access to a a more advanced understanding of the world than the mass of people, then the door is open to repression by a controlling bureaucratic elite.

In the last section of History and Class Consciousness Lukacs tackles in some detail the issue of the relationship of both the party and the Marxist analysis of class consciousness to the wider workers movement. The theory he elaborates is more complex than the simple characterisation above suggests. Lukacs suggests that the relationship between the people and the party should be seen as a dialectic interaction. The party’s development of a Marxist analysis allows it to understand the direction of society but that analysis must always remain connected to the working class as a whole. By inference if the party ceases to maintain this connection, then it is no longer pursuing a Marxist path.

“The Communist Party has no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole, it is distinguished from the rest of the proletariat by the fact that is has a clear understanding of the historical path to be taken by the proletariat as a whole.”

(Lukacs 1974 p.325)

There is a division between the party and the proletariat but the two are and must stay organically connected. Lukacs writes that the class consciousness of the working class is not monolithic, instead ranging across a spectrum based on individual variations in the position within the relations of production (a steelworker in a factory is the not exactly the same as a shop worker, even though they share membership of the working class). What’s more capitalism itself (and specifically reification within capitalism) creates a barrier to the working class becoming self conscious.

“Every worker who is born into capitalist society and grows up under its influence has to acquire by a more or less arduous process a correct understanding of his own class situation.”

(Lukacs 1974 p.326)

The existence of a party one step removed from the spontaneous organisations of the working class remains important. Not because it needs to bring leadership to the working class in the way Lenin envisaged, but because it acts at the leading edge of the proletariat, working with the most revolutionary elements and always seeking to advance the thinking of the remainder.

“The Communist Party must exist as an independent organisation so that the proletariat may be able to see its own class consciousness given  historical shape.”

(Lukacs 1974 p.326)

The party must then work to maintain that link between its developed understanding of the aims of the movement and the wider working class movement. The party must make

“a conscious effort to relate the ‘final goal’ to the immediate exigencies of the moment. Thus in the theory of the party the process, the dialectic of class consciousness becomes a dialectic that is consciously deployed.”

(Lukacs 1974 p.328)

Lukacs is absolutely clear that he does not accept the subsequent Stalinist assumption that the Communist Party can itself be a replacement for the working class.

“The Communist Party does not function as a stand-in for the proletariat even in theory.”

(Lukacs 1974 p.327)

So where does the “Independent Group” fit in? Lukacs theorises a party that is organically connected to a class, working at its most radical leading edge while seeking to bring the rest of the class along with it. The Independent Group more closely resembles the party wholly disconnected from a base in society and instead assuming that it knows itself what is best for the people. It seems indeed to assume that it can “function as a stand-in” for the working class while seeking to co-opt them to a fundamentally middle class political agenda (although in truth we don’t as yet really know what they stand for).

My short review of History and Class Consciousness is here, and some thoughts along similar lines based on Fredric Jameson’s rehabilitation of Lukacs in “Valences of the Dialectic” are here.

Kolakowski, Leszek Main Currents of Marxism (Norton, New York, 2008)

Lukacs, Georgy History and Class Consciousness (Merlin, London, 1974)

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Review: History and Class Consciousness

History and Class Consciousness is a well known text from Lukacs’ early career although as his later preface makes clear he subsequently disowned much of it. It remains however hugely significant for re-emphasising the Hegelian and dialectical side of Marx’s work.

I re-read this after reading Jameson’s “Valences of the Dialectic” and Andrew Feenburg’s “The Philosophy of Praxis” both of which cover Lukacs’ thought in some detail and are well worth reading as preparation.

In structure History and Class Consciousness is a collection of essays mostly written in the early 1920s. It is important to bear in mind – because it colours Lukacs’ writing – that at this time the survival and direction of the Russian Bolshevik revolution was still doubtful and Stalin was in the future.

There is much that is interesting, and once you are roughly familiar with the basic concepts of Hegelian dialectics then it isn’t that difficult a read (both Feenburg and Jameson cover this, and if you can survive any Zizek book then this isn’t a challenge).

Lukacs discusses a number of key concepts: reification drives Lukacs understanding of how capitalism structures knowledge. It is an extension of Marx’s theory of the commodity where relations between things come to take the place of relations between people in the capitalist economy. Lukacs extends this to the whole of society, describing how all knowledge becomes broken up and commodified.

The truth can only be approached through understanding society in its totality which structures knowledge within that society. Knowledge in other words is socially determined. The science of capitalism is conditioned by economic and social structures of capitalism itself. It drives what we seek to understand, and how we understand it.

These two factors then both drive the class consciousness of the proletariat, and the role of the Communist Party in helping the workers to break free from reified thought processes. This concept in particular has given Lukacs a bad press for the idea that there is an ‘imputed’ class consciousness which is different from the actual consciousness of real workers. Jameson coupled with a close reading of particularly the last essay here (“Towards a Methodology of the Problem of Organisation”) make it clear that things are much more complicated than this and deserve a much closer reading.

Kolakowski’s magisterial work on Marx and Marxism dismisses Lukacs as having put his intellect in the service of the later Stalinist party. Feenburg and Jameson both go a long way towards rehabilitating his thought. Lukacs is worth a deeper analysis than Kolakowski allows for. He brings out the Hegelian side of Marxist theory, and thereby opens up aspects of Marx’s thinking that have often been obscured, particularly by the ‘vulgar’ Marxists of later periods.

My thoughts on Jameson and Lukacs can be found here, and my review of Andrew Feenburg’s book “The Philosophy of Praxis” is here. Some thoughts on class consciousness and the new Independent Group in the UK is here.

Review: The Philosophy of Praxis

In this book, Feenburg connects Marx’s writing on alienation from his early “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts” to the early work of Lukacs on totality and reification and then through to the work of the Frankfurt school, and in particular Marcuse.

The thread that Feenburg draws out is that of a common “Philosophy of Praxis” – hence the title of the book. This is founded on the connection between practical activity in the world (“praxis”) and how we think, understand, and analyse that world. He draws on Marx’s early work to describe this not as philosophy but as theory or “metacritique”, seeking the emphasise the break between classical German philosophy and the thinking of Marx and subsequent thinkers. The difference is that this metacritique does not take as its starting point the division between thought and reality used for example by Kant. Instead both the early Marx and the early Lukacs see a unity between the two, something Lukacs used the word “totality” to describe.

This means that the basis for our understanding of the world is at its core socially determined. Under capitalism the very structure of knowledge is based on individualism, market forces, and the separation of ownership of the means of production from living labour. It is this separation of people from each and particularly from the outcome of their labour that the early Marx describes as ‘alienation’. In Lukacs early work (in particular History and Class Consciousness) he develops this further in the theory of ‘reification’. Social relations between people under capitalism become static relations between things, leading to the assumption that social constructs (such as the ‘laws’ by which the economy operate) become fixed and immutable.

In fact this things are socially determined during the course of history, and our understanding of the world about us is inseparable from the history of society (a point not dissimilar from one made regularly by Zizek about historical subjects positing their own presuppositions). This raises a challenge for Lukacs’ view of science, and in particular natural science, as it implies that much of what we ‘know’ is in fact determined by how capitalism structures society. But if that is the case, how are we to restructure knowledge without returning to the absurdities of a Stalinist “science” driven by the political needs of a ruling party?

Feenburg does a good job of working through the intricacies of these theories and narrating its development from Marx to Lukacs to Marcuse. The end result is that he largely rehabilitates Lukacs in particular from the condemnation of writers such as Leszek Kolakowski whilst not shying away from the challenges and difficulties. A useful book to read for anyone with an interest in the Hegelian strand of Marxism.

See also my post on Jameson’s rehabilitation of Lukacs in “Valences of the Dialectic“.

Feenburg, Andrew The Philosophy of Praxis: Marx, Lukacs, and the Frankfurt School (Verso, London, 2014)

Totality and pluralism

This is a short post to capture a superb passage from “Valences of the Dialectic”. I’m not going to add much commentary to it, but will rather quote it at some length.

Jameson is discussing Lukacs’ concept of “totality”, and in particular the post-modern turn which dismisses it as associated with Stalinism and in general the perceived destructiveness of totalising visions of the future when used as drivers for political action.

Jameson describes how modern (“late”) capitalism uses the concept of “pluralism” to express the complexity of social relations and to envelop what had formerly been disruptive non-conformist movements within the social apparatus.

This is fascinating framework within which to understand how ‘identity politics’ has become a mechanism for the co-option of dispute and its incorporation into ‘permitted’ discourse as part of a wider Marxist thought process. This facilitates the neutering of dissent, and thereby events such as the Brexit referendum result and the election of Donald Trump. More traditional channels for discontent have in other words been not blocked but diverted, opening the window for the unexpected. To mix metaphors, what the protectors of the status quo haven’t got to grips with is that in the context of class struggle closing one avenue of dissent is like squeezing a balloon – all that happens is that the challenge pops out somewhere else.

This provides philosophical depth (and a link to Lukacs’ Hegelian Marxism) to the theory of “spirits” of capitalism as a means to incorporate and control challenge and dissent expressed in Boltanski and Chiapello “The New Spirit of Capitalism“.

So that’s the preamble, here’s the segment from Jameson in full:

“Pluralism has therefore now become something like an existential category, a descriptive feature that characterises our present everyday life, rather than an ethical imperative to be realise within it. What is ideological about current celebrations of pluralism is that the slogan envelops and illicitly identifies two distinct dimensions of social complexity. There is the vertical dimension of late-capitalist or corporate institutions, and then the horizontal one of increasingly multiple social groups. Celebrations of pluralism pass the first off under the guise of the second, in whose joyous and Utopian street “heterogeneity” it decks itself out. But the complexity of institutions is also a form of standardisation (the very paradox of the system of reification as Lukacs first described it in an early stage). Meanwhile, the celebration of the diversity of the “new social movements” released by the 1960s obscures their increasing collectivisation and institutionalisation as well. The solitary Romantic rebels and nonconformists of earlier periods have all been transformed into groups and movements, each with its own specific micropolitics. The transformation marks a significant (if provisional) gain in the political power of formerly marginal or repressed individuals, who, however, thereby forfeit the power and the pathos of an older rhetoric of individual resistance and revolt.”

“Yet is is precisely by way of this new institutionalisation, marked, for example, by a new-ethnic movement in culture, in which older groups now produce their “heritage” in the form of the image, that the ideologeme of “pluralism” is able to do its work. It shifts gears imperceptibly from these new group structures to the very different structures of the corporate, which can now appropriate the celebration of Difference and Heterogeneity and harness it to the celebration of consumer goods, free enterprise, and the eternal wonder and excitement of the market itself.”

(Jameson 2009, p212-213)

Jameson, Fredric Valences of the Dialectic (Verso, London, 2009)