Tag Archives: Review

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.

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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)

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.

Review: Grand Hotel Abyss

I’ve not really paid much attention previously to the Frankfurt School and the development of critical theory after having covered them briefly during my University course and taking against the complexity, obfuscation, and negativity of their thought. This probably wasn’t helped by their entries in Leszek Kolakowski’s “Main Currents of Marxism” (the standard work covering all the main Marxist thinkers from Marx through to the 1970s). Kolakowski’s section on the Frankfurt School includes one of my favourite academic take-downs of all time, talking about Theodor Adorno’s “Negative Dialetics”, Kolakowski says of Adorno that:

“he shows no desire whatever to elucidate his ideas, and clothes them in pretentious generalities. As a philosophical text, Negative Dialectics is a model of professorial bombast concealing poverty of thought.”

(Kolakowski 2008, p.1081)

Ouch. Enough to put anyone off reading critical theory in any detail.

Stuart Jeffries book cuts through this. Told in chronological order Jeffries places each thinker in context, starting with Walter Benjamin (an inspiration for the Frankfurt School and critical theory if not actually part of the Institute for Social Research) and progressing from Horkheimer to Adorno and on to Jurgen Habermas and Axel Honneth.

Jeffries gives some biographical detail for each of the thinkers covered, and covers the historical context – particularly important for 1930’s Nazism and the run up to the second world war, and then again for 1968 and the influence both of the school on the revolutionary moment, and of the student radicals themselves on the Frankfurt School thinkers, especially Adorno and Marcuse.

Alongside this, Jeffries covers the theories and main lines of thought for each of them in a way that makes sense and allows you to follow the development of their critique of modern life in a clear and coherent way. The style is engaging and very readable, but still leaves you feeling that you’ve covered a reasonable summary. Jeffries is not blind to the gaps, weaknesses, and inconsistencies in the work of the school, but is clearly sympathetic in general. That said this never feels like hagiography, but rather an honest assessment of their contribution to modern thought.

If you’ve struggled with critical theory before and want an engaging introduction to who the main characters are and what it’s all about then this is the perfect book. It’s not a book of heavy theory, nor is it quite just a simple biography. It is though a good starting point. Maybe I’ll read some Adorno after all.

Jeffries, Stuart Grand Hotel Abyss (Verso, London, 2017)

Kolakowski, Leszek Main Currents of Marxism (Norton & Company, London, 2008)

Review: The New Spirit of Capitalism

This is a classic modern work of sociology, which sets out to unpick the relationship between society, politics, and the mechanisms of the economy.

The key concept presented by the authors is that in order to survive capitalism needs to be accompanied by both a “spirit” and a “critique”.

The “spirit” is a positive expression used to inspire commitment to the continuation of capitalism. Passive non-resistance is not enough, the system needs active commitment from both workers, managers, and leaders to continuing to reproduce that system. The “spirit of capitalism” then is “the ideology that justifies engagement in capitalism” by defining “not only the advantages which participation in the capitalist processes might afford on an individual basis, but also the collective benefits, defined in terms of the common good, which it contributes to producing for everyone.” (Boltanski & Chiapello 2018, p.8)

In other words this spirit articulates the shared vision capable of delivering the broad support of society for the continuation of capitalism based on a collective understanding of the common good.

The authors use management literature to develop an analysis of that shared vision, on the (reasonable) basis that the guidance presented to managers is a clear indication of how the system is “supposed” to work, in a way that supports the most efficient running of that system. Using this technique they contend that for much of the twentieth century the spirit of capitalism was built on secure jobs and hierarchical progress with accepted union rights supporting the division of increasing wealth in a way perceived to be fair.

Each spirit is accompanied by “critique” with two emphases. A ‘social’ critique that addresses the impact of the system on inequality and distribution of wealth, and an ‘artistic’ critique that addresses the impact on individual human psychology. It is the interaction between the way things are supposed to work (the ‘spirit’) and critique that drives the stability of the status quo. The system responds to criticism which in turn reacts to new developments in an ongoing dialogue.

With a strong French perspective the authors outline how the critique of post-war capitalism dominated by large monolithic firms with hierarchical bureaucracies and the accompanying “second spirit” of capitalism peaked with the events of 1968. In Britain it is possible to perceive a similar situation in the various crises of the 1970’s. Under the impact of critique not only workers but also managers and owners reached the point where they were no longer able to maintain the belief that the system could continue as it then existed, or was capable of maintaining the common good. The prevailing spirit broke down, unable to respond to criticism of the stifling effect of bureaucracy, the inauthenticity of mass produced commodity consumerism, and distributional mechanisms built around (white, straight) male dominated industrial workplaces.

As a result of this breakdown, a new spirit of capitalism has begun to emerge that is able to respond to this criticism. Again, built up from the management literature – this time of the 1990s – it is one based around flexible working in networked environments which deliver more individual control over life and work, but also a more precarious life style Ahead of their time, what the authors are describing is the modern world of the ‘gig economy’, the zero-hours contract, and the ‘precariat‘. This third spirit neutralises the critique of the second spirit by allowing more focus on the individual and less on the collective, allowing the subsequent development of ‘identity politics’, accompanied by the break up of the large monolithic companies into many loosely linked component parts. The move away from inauthentic mass commodity production is exemplified by the creation of new ‘artisan’ products. This new system they term the “projective city”, because it is upon relations built around individuals collaborating in projects rather than working in command-and-control hierarchies.

The authors theorise that after a hiatus when this new third spirit was in the ascendant and the old critique of the ‘second spirit’ of capitalism was neutralised, new forms of criticism are becoming visible. They highlight the exploitation inherent in a network model of employment where the freedom and flexibility available to the few is built on the requirement for many to work cheaply and without security, to be discarded when it suits the business. Corporations similarly are broken up into flexible and loosely connected parts to avoid both tax and other social obligations. This provides the basis on which criticism might resume, although the authors are clear that modern critical thought has yet to catch up with the changes visible in what might be called the relations of production. Critique is necessary however to keep the system ‘honest’ and without it, it falls prey to its worst excesses, as can be demonstrated from the experience of the last 10 years. There is also a lesson here for Jeremy Corbyn’s revitalised Labour Party who it feels are still refighting the battles of the past, rather than trying to identify the new critique that will drive the changes of the future.

The authors disclaim any direct connection to Marxism or a Marxist analysis of capitalism, and reference a sociological historiography from Weber and Durkheim onward. However what they seem to describe are the detailed mechanics of the ‘hegemony’ articulated and theorised by Gramsci. What they describe as the “spirit” of capitalism is simply the mechanism through which the dominant class acquires the subservience of the rest of society to the continuation of the existing system.

Especially fascinating is the dialectical tension between the ‘spirit of capitalism’ and the critique directed at it. The two remain in dialogue throughout and cannot exist without each other. As the last 20 years have demonstrated, capitalism needs effective criticism to prevent it from falling into the self-destructive pattern identified by Marx.

This book is a detailed and fascinating explanation of the interaction between modern society and economy. While not directly Marxist, it is a fascinating accompaniment to Marxist thought and a spur to reflective thinking about how revolutionary change in the modern world might come about.

Boltanski, Luc and Chiapello, Eve The New Spirit of Capitalism (Verso, London, 2018)

Review: A History of the World in 7 Cheap Things

This book is an interesting corrective to what might be thought of as the ‘standard’ history of the development of the European domination of the world from the 15th century onward.

The seven cheap things in question are Nature, Money, Work, Care, Food, Energy, and Lives. Where that standard history views modernity as having been a time of enormous progress that has lifted millions out of poverty (see for example Fraser Nelson discussing modern statistics on inequality from Oxfam in the Spectator) the authors of this book see a story of rapacious exploitation of both people and the natural world. As they say in the introduction, while it might be thought that the iconic product of the modern world is perhaps the smartphone, or the internet more generally, it is in fact the chicken nugget – something which demonstrates a cheapened approach both to the production of food, to the natural environment, and to the lives of the people who consume them.

The early narrative of the book focuses on the island of Madeira and its colonisation in the 15th century, moving on to Columbus and the subsequent exploration and colonisation of the Americas. The text bounces back and forth using examples from early imperialism to illustrate and underline the ongoing cheapening of the modern world. This is both insightful and frustrating in equal measure. It is not a methodical review of the development of modern capitalism, but is strong on anecdote and exposing the myths on which the modern west’s view of its foundation is built.

While the text is not explicitly Marxist, one emphasis is on the importance of the boundary between the commodified capitalism world and the rest. In this sense it feels strongly influenced by Rosa Luxemberg and the need for violent ‘primitive’ accumulation to continue keeping capitalism alive. Like Rosa Luxemberg the authors see this as an ongoing process, as much a part of life today with the commodification of areas of life previously untouched by capitalism, as it was in the early modern period with the construction of the slave economy in the Americas. The parallel is well drawn, but it remains a frustration that the intervening history of capitalism is skipped so quickly over.

The book also fails to fully engage with the Marxist debate on the origins of capitalism. It implicitly subscribes to the view that the changes brought about by the colonisation and expansion of the 15th and 16th centuries was the key change which triggered the development of capitalism. It does not tackle Meiksin Wood’s view contra view that in fact the significant change came in the relations of production in rural England and that there is not a smooth path from the mercantilism of early modern colonialism to fully fledged industrial capitalism.

As I said at the start this is a useful and engaging short book, and a corrective to progressive liberal views of western history. It is not though a full academic treatment.

Nelson, Fraser What Oxfam Won’t Tell You About Capitalism and Poverty (https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2017/01/oxfam-wont-tell-capitalism-poverty/)

Patel, Raj and Moore, Jason A History of the World in 7 Cheap Things (Verso, London, 2018)

Meiksins Wood, Ellen The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (Verso, London, 2017)

Review: The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View

A fascinating re-examination of the genesis of capitalism, along with some thoughts for what that might mean for its future. The origin of capitalism has been the subject of debate, particularly within the Marxist intellectual sphere because of its significance for how it might finish. The first part of this book is taken up with a summary and brief review of this debate. Meiksin Wood’s focus is on the “commercialisation” approach and its variations. In short Meiksin Wood’s view is that this is based on the presupposition that the logic of capitalism (profit derived from exploitation of production based on workers who do not have independent access to the means of production) is eternal, awaiting only the removal of fetters to be released and grow. Even various strands of Marxist thinking see capitalist laws of motion sitting within feudalism simply waiting to be unleashed. Gradual accumulation through trade eventually reaches a tipping point allowing the existing bourgeois in the cities to overturn their feudal chains.

In Meiksin Wood’s view this is wholly unsatisfactory, taking as given what itself needs to be explained – that is how did capitalist relations and forms of property come to be created in the first place. It is not sufficient to simply assume that capitalism existed latent within feudalism waiting to be released. This would mean that we accept the view common in capitalist economics that the ‘laws of motion’ of capitalism represent eternal rules valid throughout the whole of human history. And yet we know that capitalism appeared late, with most societies functioning in non-capitalist ways.

The second and longer section of the book outlines Meiksin Wood’s view that the genesis of capitalism was in fact a specific response to the conditions in rural England in the early modern period. Rather than being driven by the commercial accumulation of wealth, or by technological change, capitalism grows out of the relations of production in the countryside where the development of changed relations between aristocratic landlord and tenant farmer imposes the imperatives of the market on both producers and appropriators. These relations of production, and the creation of a unified national market for domestic products, create an agrarian capitalism that provides the foundation stone for future developments. The bourgeois of the towns and the development of international trade is therefore not what underpins the creation of capitalism, rather it is the changes in the English countryside.

This is an excellent thought provoking discussion of the issues surrounding the development of capitalism in the early modern period.

Meiksins Wood, E The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (Verso, London, 2017)