Tag Archives: Marxism

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)


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)

Jameson on Lukacs

In his monumental work “Main Currents of Marxism” Leszek Kolakowski is highly critical of Lukacs, titling his chapter on him “Reason in the Service of Dogma”. Kolakowski claims that Lukacs showed how Marx’s philosophy “could be used to justify the self-glorification of Communist bureaucracies” (Kolakowski 2008, p. 1031).

“Lukacs is perhaps the most striking example in the twentieth century of what may be called the betrayal of reason by those whose profession is to use and defend it.”

(Kolakowski 2008, p. 1032)

Simply put, Kolakowski holds that Lukacs is interesting for the way he brings forward the Hegelian background to Marx’s thought, in particular with his thinking on reification and totality. However by treating the Communist Party, as the sole arbiter of what the working class ‘ought’ to believe, with those who refuse to believe labelled as subject to false or “imputed” consciousness, Lukacs lends philosophical credence to the Stalinist dictatorship.

In “Valences of the Dialectic” Fredric Jameson seeks a rehabilitation of Lukacs. Jameson acknowledges that Lukacs argues for the priority of the category of social class over other analytical categories, for example in modern politics the categories of ‘identify politics’ such as gender and race. For Lukacs social class is the driver of history, and the working class have a particular role under capitalism as a progressive force. This indeed implies (as highlighted by Kolakowski) that the working class ‘ought’ to be revolutionary, and that if they aren’t we are left struggling to understand why not. What then can Lukacs mean in his analysis of working class consciousness and the role of the party?

Jameson takes a different approach, drawing a connection to “feminist standpoint theory“, a subsequent theory which builds on Lukacs, Hegel, and Marx. The social location of an agent “plays a role in forming what we know and limiting what we are able to know” (Bowell). The social relations that underpin capitalism condition how people in different classes understand reality, and open up the possibility of revolutionary consciousness.

In other words, the idea of a single collective proletarian world view guarded by the revolutionary vanguard party is a myth, but the daily working practice of people does inflect how they see the world. How an industrial factory worker perceives the world will be different from how a peasant or shopkeeper perceives it (Jameson 2009, p. 217 referencing Sartre). From this starting point we can see that the viewpoint of the structural situation of the working class

“makes it unavoidable for that group to see and to know, features of the world that remain obscure, invisible, or merely occasional and secondary for other groups.”

(Jameson 2009, p. 215)

Reification – the turning of social relations between people into ‘objective’ relations between things – is then the key barrier which stands in the way of this revolutionary consciousness being realised. It imposes patterns of thought founded in the commodity relation onto knowledge, and the goal of theory is to allow us to see through the reified structures to the reality underneath.

Jameson relates this to the work of Thomas S Kuhn  who in “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” describes the mechanisms of scientific progress in very similar terms. The practice of individual scientists operates within a socially conditioned epistemological framework which is only broken in traumatic ruptures following an accumulation of anomalies which the old framework can no longer account for. When this happens the outcome is a ‘paradigm shift’ that dramatically changes how we see the world.

Jameson’s short chapter on Lukacs makes sense of his writing on class consciousness and fits it into a wider framework of socially conditioned knowledge which extends beyond the Marxist tradition. Kolakowski’s criticism retains it’s insight in light of the Soviet experience, and Lukacs well known subsequent self criticism and support for Stalinism supports this. But for me he remains a thinker worth engaging with.

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

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

Kuhn, Thomas S The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2012)

Bowell, T Feminist Standpoint Theory (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Review: Valences of the Dialectic

This is a magnificent book. Beginning with a basic restatement of what we mean when we talk about dialectics, with three fundamental ‘laws’ underpinning it as a thought process:

  • The law of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa;
  • The law of the interpenetration of opposites;
  • The law of the negation of the negation.

The remainder of the book is then a range of essays, often previously published elsewhere, which implement and expand on the use of dialectics across a range of philosophical and revolutionary areas of interest. Throughout Jameson is keen to emphasise the analytical side of Marx, and to avoid the retrofitting of philosophical ‘systems’ (structuralism, existentialism etc.) onto his thought. In this sense Jameson takes the same stance as David Harvey who in his work on Capital encourages us to read it on Marx’s own terms.

Much of this fascinating and extremely thought provoking. It is not however a basic introduction to dialectics, and you are I think best served coming to this book with at least something of an idea of what it is all about. Some – particularly the final two chapters based on literary criticism – is quite dense reading.

There is an extended discussion of spectrality based on the work of Derrida which is masterful, and quite an achievement to have unpicked from Derrida’s impenetrable work. Jameson also discussed Lukacs in some depth, and does a good job of rehabilitating his concepts of reification and totality as key themes. He also provides a convincing exposition of ‘false consciousness’ which belies the standard use by the worst of vulgar Marxism. The final analysis of time, narrative, and history is hard work but worthwhile for understanding the complexity involved in time as a category.

This book then is a description of the dialectical method, but more than that it is the detailed and expert use of that method in a range of insightful analyses. More than anything it is inspiring for the continued value and use of dialectics in thinking about the modern world.

I wrote more detailed notes while reading this, along with blog posts on spectrality, dialectical materialism, totality and pluralismsublation, and Lukacs inspired by various sections.

Modern Capitalism, Sublation, and Corbyn

I have found the Hegelian side of Marxism fascinating for some time now, since coming across Lukacs at university. I don’t think you can truly get to grips with Marx’s analysis without some understanding of dialectics.

One of the things I find powerful about dialectics is how it approaches change, the processes by which things develop. “Sublation” is one of the key concepts which underpins this analysis of change. As things (concepts, theories) change they are gradually negated, turn into their ‘antithesis’, until at the point of change a new ‘synthesis’ appears. Crucially, this new synthesis does not simply replace its predecessor, it subsumes it. The new wholly contains the old, grows from it, can only be understood by looking both back at what came before, and by extension forward to what it will become (something I’ve written about before).

Marx also uses this idea of sublation, particularly when describing the conflict that grows between the developing relations of production and a society built on top of economic mechanisms that are being superseded. The concept runs throughout the Communist Manifesto and is stated in the simplest fashion in the introduction to “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”.

“No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.”

(Marx 1971 p.21)

Fredric Jameson makes a similar point in a number of the essays included in “Valences of the Dialectic“. Counter-intuitively he uses Walmart as an example of a company which, paradoxically, has overcome the anarchy of capitalism and the market, providing the necessities of life to an increasingly impoverished public which is incapable of exercising political control (Jameson 2009 p. 422). Jameson makes a connection to Marx’s admiration for the progressive power of capitalism, evident in section 1 of the Communist Manifesto.

“The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part… wherever it has got the upper hand [it] has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations.”

(Marx 2010 p.23)

“The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of the instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all… nations into civilisation.”

(Marx 2010 p.26)

Walmart then, for all its exploitative nature within capitalism, is a phenomenon we must ‘sublate’ and overcome rather than trying to pretend that it (and all the other features of ‘postmodern’ capitalism) never happened. Socialism can only be something that develops out of the existing state of capitalism, that subsumes and exceeds where we are now. The ‘postmodern’ age of capitalism with its global reach and advanced communication systems provides the foundation on which the future needs to be built.

“The challenge remains… to try to think a beyond of late capitalism which does not imply a regression to earlier, simpler stages of social development but which posits a future already latent in the present, as Marx did for the capitalism of his day.”

(Jameson 2009 p.408)

This is an analysis which is quite close in principle to the idea of “fully automated luxury communism” promoted by some on the modern left.

As Jameson points out, what this also implies is that Marxism is not a static solution to which we can endlessly “return”. It is a method and means of analysis based on capitalism itself. As capitalism changes, the analysis of its contradictions and instabilities needs to develop, developing and building on the foundational analysis by Marx.

“Marxism is the very science of capitalism; its epistemological vocation lies in its unmatched capacity to describe capitalism’s historical originality… a postmodern capitalism necessarily calls a postmodern Marxism into existence over against itself.”

(Jameson 2009 p.409)

So what is the link to Corbyn? One common criticism of Corbyn is that his agenda is based on the Bennite policies of the early 1980s. Much of this is commentary is plainly scaremongering with a liberal or status quo standpoint. That said I do worry that one strand of the Corbyn ‘project’ is about protecting and defending past victories (or reversing past defeats) rather than seeking to ‘sublate’ capitalism and replace it with something truly radical. Corbyn might be seen as the last social democrat, not the dangerous subversive he is often made out to be.

To put it another way I think that rather than being a dangerous radical, I believe Corbyn isn’t being radical enough.

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

Marx, Karl A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1971)

Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich The Communist Manifesto (Vintage Books, London, 2010)

Dialectical Materialism

I’ve been reading a fair amount about dialectics recently, working through both Fredric Jameson’s “Valences of the Dialectic” and Slavoj Zizek’s “Less Than Nothing“. I recently captured an interesting passage in Jameson’s book on Lukacs’ use of the concept of “totality” to understand the strategies used in modern society to envelop and incorporate dissent into the status quo (and the potential impacts of that strategy, leading to the eruption of dissatisfaction in other places). I’ll follow that up with more extensive notes shortly.

“Dialectical materialism” however has a poor reputation these days as the term used for the simplified “vulgar” Marxism of the Stalinist Soviet Union. So it was odd to read in Zizek’s book a long quote from Stalin’s “History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks): Short Course“. (I shouldn’t really be surprised, Zizek is such a consistent contrarian).

However, when summarised by Zizek this passage from the relic of the worst period of Marxism becomes a brilliant short explanation of dialectical totality:

“First, nature is not a conglomerate of dispersed phenomena, but a connected whole. Then, this Whole is not immobile, but in a state of constant movement and change. Next, this change is not only a gradual quantitative drifting, but involves qualitative jumps and ruptures. Finally, this qualitative development is not a matter of harmonious deployment, but is propelled by the struggle of the opposites … The trick here is that we are effectively not dealing merely with the Platonic dieresis, the gradual subdivision of a genus into species and the species into subspecies: the underlying premise is that this “diagonal” process of division is really vertical, ie., that we are dealing with different aspects of the same division.”

(Zizek 2012)

I should be clear that I’m not endorsing a “dialectic of nature” here. Rather the thought process that sees a subdivided whole rather than a set of linked but discrete objects.

Just as usefully, Zizek goes on to explain how this analytical concept can become in the hands of someone like Stalin a tool for monstrous political control and persecution. Quantitative change that doesn’t lead to qualitative change is, in this analysis, not true change; qualitative change that does not involve a struggle of opposites is not true change. As Zizek describes it this leads to a “more ominous” description:

“those who advocate qualitative change without a struggle of the opposites really oppose change”

(Zizek 2012)

And to refine it further:

“those who advocate the transformation of capitalism into socialism without class struggle really reject socialism and want capitalism to continue.”

(Zizek 2012)

And suddenly the potential political implications are laid bare, and how it came to be used to underpin the Stalinist terror.

Zizek, Slavoj Less Than Nothing (Verso, London, 2012)