Lukács: another view

Submitted by martin on 25 July, 2019 - 3:23 Author: Martin Thomas
Lukács in 1919

According to John Rees and the Counterfire group (a splinter from the SWP), Georg Lukács was "the most important Marxist political philosopher since Marx".

He was "the great theorist of revolution in the 20th century", and his writings were "the most sophisticated development of the classical Marxist tradition that anyone has developed".

John Cunningham's presentation (Solidarity 511) is more sober. But generally Lukács has enjoyed high repute in a wide range of the left since the early 1970s, and with many Third Camp Marxists since Michael Harrington made the first English translation from Lukács's History and Class Consciousness (HCC) for the "Shachtmanite" ISL back in 1957.

I want to suggest a more sceptical assessment.

I am not qualified to comment on Lukács's writings in literary criticism and aesthetics, whether in his Stalinist period or in his earlier years (he was an academic and writer, with romantic anti-bourgeois leanings, but outside politics, until the age of 33). His reputation as a "political philosopher" rests almost entirely on his 1923 anthology of essays from 1919-22 (HCC) and his 1924 booklet Lenin.

HCC was published in a small edition (a few hundred copies). It gained some attention in intellectual and academic circles round the German Communist Party. It was oafishly denounced by Zinoviev at the 5th Congress of the Comintern (June-July 1924): "If we get a few more professors spinning out their Marxist theories we shall be lost. We cannot tolerate such theoretical revisionism...". It was obediently disavowed by Lukács himself.

It remained obscure until Kostas Axelos produced a French translation in 1960. Lukács himself tried to stop publication of the French translation, and wrote an again-disavowing preface to the new German edition which appeared in 1967. A Spanish translation followed in 1969, and English and Hungarian in 1971.

The Lenin booklet of February 1924 likewise emerged from obscurity in the radicalisation of the late 1960s: French translation 1965, new German edition 1967, English, Spanish, and Hungarian 1970.

In 1956 Lukács, at the age of 71, had broken from the three decades of obedience to Stalinism in which most of his writings had been done, and joined the reforming government of Imre Nagy. After Russia invaded to suppress the reforming government and the working-class revolutionary movement which had grown up under it, Lukács escaped the death sentence imposed on Nagy.

He was interned for a while in Romania, then, after a new self-disavowal, allowed to return to Hungary and write anew about aesthetics. After 1968, he felt confident to make more criticism of Stalinism, of a liberal (and justified) sort. He died in 1971, at the age of 86, just as his political reputation was flowering.

The texts of the Bolsheviks and the Communist International in the heroic years, from the Russian Revolution through to 1922-3, are a jumble. Almost everything was written to meet urgent needs of polemic or political crisis, and often written hastily. Nothing was written as a more detached and "philosophical" overview of the stock of ideas carried forward from the left wing of the Second International, and how they could and should be further developed in the light of the Russian Revolution.

Lukács's writing, by an academically-trained author, mostly able to take a little distance from immediate political exigencies, has been widely taken as filling that gap. But I think not.

What is orthodox Marxism? asserts that "the development of science has overtaken many of Marx's original theses... [But] whether someone is or is not a Marxist is not determined by his conviction of the truth of individual theses, but by something quite different: the method".

Even if "science had proved all Marx's assertions to be false... we could still accept this scientific criticism without demur and still remain Marxists - as long as we adhered to the Marxist method". (Quoted from version in Tactics and Ethics).

You can read that as a plea against dogmatism. But at best it is a plea for a dogmatism of method rather than one of substantive theory. Why is that better?

What puts a method beyond criticism if many or even all uses of it, by a competent researcher, produce errors? If the method does not need actual results to validate it, what does validate it?

What is this method? Which method does Lukács recommends as "the Marxist" one? Marx himself produced no textbook or codification on method. Lukács replies: "Marx's method is the revolutionary dialectic... Marx took over the dialectical method from classical German philosophy, and in particular from Hegel".

Dialectics, says Lukács, shows that "concepts" are "living realities" which "create a process in which individual concepts necessarily change into the opposite of their original formulation...

"No amount of mere empirical research... could ever make... the necessity of revolutionary action... either intelligible or acceptable. Only the dialectic is adequate to this task".

Lukács further emphasises "the totality" and the "unity of theory and practice".

Many other writers besides Hegel described themselves as using "dialectics" (Kant, for example. Feuerbach. Marx, one of whose "Paris manuscripts" was given over to a "critique of the Hegelian dialectic" as a "philosophic dissolution and restoration of the existing empirical world").

Lukács writes as if it is obvious what "dialectics" he means. In fact, I think, he opts for a version of Hegelian dialectics, in which "pure" philosophy tells us that "concepts... create a process". This is a sort of "super-theory", or "theory before the theory", which enables the philosopher to know the whole picture (the "totality") more surely than any scientific investigator can know the partial territory in which, inevitably, any particular human inquiry proceeds. And then to dismiss any troublesome particular inquiry as inferior to the grand scheme which the philosopher has evolved from the "concepts".

With Hegel, the compensating factor (sort of) was that he had an encyclopedic knowledge (acquired in the usual way, by reading books), and in fact used his dialectics to fit together the pieces of what he knew (empirically) into patterns, sometimes illuminating and insightful patterns. Lukács had no comparable compensating factor.

Lukács had considered himself a Marxist for only a few months when he wrote What is Orthodox Marxism? in early 1919. He had been recruited to Marxism by the leaders of the Hungarian Communist Party, itself formed only weeks earlier, in late November 1918.

Those leaders brought a model of "Bolshevism" heavily based on the constrained civil-war expedients of the Bolsheviks, not on the whole three or four decades of Marxist politics in Russia before the revolution, because that they, having been in Russia as Hungarian prisoners of war, had been inducted into activity primarily in the civil war.

The short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic of March-August 1919 went down to defeat worse than it might have been because of its CP leaders' errors. Their very new party merged with the well-established Hungarian Social Democratic Party. The Social Democrats were not especially left-wing - they had been junior partners in government under the liberal aristocrat Mihály Károlyi from October 1918 to March 1919 - but, in the disorienting and chaotic flux after Károlyi resigned, they came to be hegemonised by the CP leaders.

The social base of the Hungarian Social Democrats, let alone of the CP, was slim, largely one in the Budapest working class when the rest of Hungary had a heavily peasant population.

The CP leaders deployed Russian civil war policies before there was any real civil war against them. On some issues they deployed abrupt and mistaken civil-war-type policies which the Bolsheviks themselves had avoid.

As Trotsky later wrote: "Having assumed power without struggle, the Hungarian leaders demonstrated that they were not big enough to keep it. Their policy was a chain of errors. Let us confine ourselves to mentioning two of the links: first of all, they forgot about the peasantry, failed to give it the land; second, to celebrate the happy occasion, they merged the young Communist Party with the Left Social Democracy as soon as the latter began fawning on the [new] state power. Thus they showed -and particularly [the CP leader] Bela Kun - that the experience of the Russian revolution had taught them to understand neither the peasant question nor the question of the role of the party in the revolution".

Kun also effectively denied self-determination to Hungary's large national minorities (actual Hungarians were a minority in most of the land area of 1918 Hungary).

Trotsky later reported Lenin as commenting about Bela Kun: "I do not dispute that he is a fighter, but as a politician he is worthless; the comrades must be taught not to trust him".

When the CP-led regime faced actual war (a Romanian invasion), the CP leaders resigned and fled. By then, they had eroded their base even among the Budapest workers. "White Terror" followed, and Hungary remained under fascistic and then Stalinist regimes from 1919 to 1989.

Lukács emphasises class consciousness, of course, in History and Class Consciousness. But "class consciousness" there is a slippery concept.

Lukács expects most consciousness to be "false" consciousness, and declares that by proletarian class consciousness he means not the actual thoughts ("mass psychology") of the working class. Instead, class consciousness is embodied in the revolutionary party.

How does that party get its "true" consciousness? Lukács's implicit assumption, I submit, is that it gets it by having (by assumption) the "true" method; that this method gives a romantic insight into totality and necessity; and that, in the end, the consciousness remains "true" even if the party gets things wrong, because it still has that "true" method.

That approach reads like a puffed-up rationalisation of the "commandist" policies of the Hungarian CP in 1919. Lukács, exiled in Vienna, fell out with Bela Kun but became a supporter of the "theory of the offensive", which Trotsky later summarised as follows:

"The more consistent adherents of the theory of the offensive developed the following line of reasoning: The whole world is in the grip of a crisis which is the crisis of a decomposing economic order. This crisis must ineluctably deepen and thereby revolutionise the working class more and more. In view of this it was superfluous for the Communist Party to keep a watchful eye on its rear, on its main reserves; its task was to take the offensive against capitalist society. Sooner or later the proletariat, under the lash of economic decay, would come to its support".

One characteristic of the "theory of the offensive" was its direct deduction of practical conclusions from grand conceptual generalisations. In HCC Lukács stresses "unity of theory and practice". As I wrote back in 2011 (

"'Unity of theory and practice' is often said to be a Marxian idea. But... it is much older than Marx; and... the phrase was nowhere used by Marx.

"I do not know when the phrase was lifted from older writers (such as Hegel) and dropped into Marxist discourse. Georg Lukács used it a lot, but I doubt he was the first. It became a 'conventional wisdom' with Stalinism.

"The phrase 'unity of theory and practice' is often interpreted as meaning such things as that practice should be guided by theory and theory should be translated into and tested by practice, which are indeed good sense; and so it has usually been accepted by anti-Stalinist Marxists.

"But 'unity of theory of practice' is a bad way of expressing that good sense. The necessary and proper linkage of theory and practice does not merge them into a single unity. They remain distinct.

"Practice will always be richer and more complex than theory; theory will always run ahead of practice, to some degree or another. Much theory has only a very distant relation to 'practice' in the sense of political activity.

"Disunity of theory and practice - that is, scope for 'provisional thinking', autonomous from immediate practical imperatives - is necessary for intellectual progress".

So also is scope for practical calculation of tactics, with some autonomy from big theoretical generalisations.

Lukács had retreated from the "theory of the offensive" before he wrote some of the essays in History and Class Consciousness. His 1924 Lenin was much more "orthodox" - but "orthodox" in the sense of a Communist International where, in the wake of Lenin's death, the "troika" of Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Stalin were starting a campaign for what they called "Bolshevisation" (monolithism: and against "Trotskyism" and "Luxemburgism".

In his 1967 postscript Lukács describes "Stalin's later development" as "then still hidden except for fleeting glimpses in Zinoviev's leadership of the Comintern". The full development of Stalinism was foreseen by no-one in 1924. The incipient Stalinist traits in Zinoviev's Comintern were much more than "fleeting glimpses".

Lukács's Lenin presents Lenin as having a uniquely apt concept of the revolutionary party because in Lenin's thought questions of organisation were linked to the "actuality of the revolution".

Yet in 1924 revolutionary parties really needed to recognise that the revolution was not as "actual" as it had been. Trotsky pointed out the coming of a "neo-reformist and neo-pacifist chapter of European, and to some extent also of world history", and was for his pains demagogically denounced by Zinoviev as a semi-Menshevik or semi-social-democrat.

True, however, an organisation will not be a revolutionary party unless its members and leaders look beyond their immediate tactical and organisation preoccupations - what "works", what "fits the mood", what gains support - to the longer term of making the organisation fit to contribute decisively in revolutionary explosions.

That idea, in general terms, was far from unique to Lenin. In 1909 Karl Kautsky wrote The Road to Power, in which he deduced his arguments for the Social Democratic Party to remain "immovable, logical and irreconcilable" so that it would be cohesive and strong enough to take power in the coming "moral and intellectual collapse of all possessors of power". The German Social Democracy of 1891-1914 lived in the constant hope of early revolution, in fact of early socialist revolution. Lenin, however, up to 1917, though only "bourgeois-democratic" revolution (of a radical sort) to be "actual" (on the immediate agenda) in Russia.

The difference between the Bolsheviks and the German Social Democracy lay not in whether the different socialists considered the revolution "actual" or not, but in how they conceived that revolution and the party's tasks in it.

"Lenin's" revolutionary party in Lukács's booklet is - I'd submit - despite all the qualifications Lukács had added after being disillusioned with the "theory of the offensive", despite the eloquence and polish with which Lukács expressed many common-stock ideas in the booklet, despite all that, still the romantic know-all of What is Orthodox Marxism?.

The party knows all, in Lukács account, because Lenin was "the genius... for whom the true essence, the living, active trends of an age, are clear". He had "the method" which, says Lukács, he "inherited" from Marx and Engels. "The true Lenin" was "the theorist who consistently developed the Marxist dialectic". (One imagines Engels drafting his will: my house to so-and-so, my library to such-another, my dialectical method to Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov in Russia...)

Repeatedly Lukács praises Lenin for seeing what no-one could see, and sometimes for arguments which were the common stock of the left wing of the Second International, not unique to Lenin; never does Lukács expound how Lenin was a product of the Russian workers' movement and the Bolsheviks, as well as a shaper of them.

The question should arise, in a book written to mark Lenin's death: who would "inherit" the magic method from Lenin? But Lukács does not raise it. Implicit in the booklet is that the Communist Parties, by being "Leninist" and "Bolshevised", will remain "the tangible embodiment of proletarian class-consciousness".

By contrast, Lukács reduces all other trends in the labour movement to "the opportunists" and classifies them as "bourgeois". That emphasis, again, was typical of Zinoviev's Comintern around 1924-5: the united front tactic was narrowed down towards being only a "united front from below". "The Social-Democratic Party has been converted into a wing of fascism", declared Zinoviev at the 5th Congress of the Comintern.

Lukács would have known about the hounding of the 1923 Left Opposition, and the increasing concentration of actual power in Stalin's "Secretariat". Yet he blandly writes about "the state as a proletarian weapon... for eradicating the opportunist threat to that class struggle of the proletariat which must be pursued with undiminished intensity in the dictatorship".

History and Class Consciousness includes two essays on Rosa Luxemburg. The first was warmly appreciative. The second, however, coined the idea that Luxemburg had overestimated "the organic character of the course of history". The idea was developed further in the Lenin booklet.

It would later be developed and crudified by Ruth Fischer - a close comrade of Lukács's in Vienna - in the period when, as secretary of the Communist Party of Germany, she led the battle for "Bolshevisation" and "monolithism" and to anathematise a scarecrow of "Luxemburgism". I don't know whether Lukács was actually the first to compile a stereotyped story about the "deviations" of Luxemburg and Luxemburgism: it seems very probable that he helped nourish and spread that story, via Ruth Fischer.

Lukács's two main political texts do not, I think, add anything to what we can learn from the Bolsheviks, even if they do present some Bolshevik ideas in well-crafted prose. They do, by contrast, develop impressive-looking and polished rationalisations of two harmful trends in the heroic early years of the Communist Parties: the tendency to model what was to be done:

First on the civil war expedients of the Bolsheviks.

And then on the party regime after the civil war of the growing Stalinist bureaucracy in the period when it could not just decree and dispose, but had to manoeuvre and ideologise to gain its hegemony.

An abridged version of this article appears in the printed paper


Submitted by Jason Schulman on Sun, 29/09/2019 - 18:48

I'll add to what Martin says.

Read the final chapter of “History and Class Consciousness.” Where political freedom was once “light and air” for the labor movement, as Engels, Kautsky and Lenin all understood, freedom in any bourgeois society was now merely, in Lukács’s words, “the freedom of the individual isolated by the fact of property which both reifies and is itself reified.”

To consciously desire the communist “realm of freedom” now necessarily means “consciously taking the steps that will really lead to it...It implies the conscious subordination of the self to that collective will that is destined to bring real freedom into being and that today is earnestly taking the first arduous, uncertain and groping steps towards it. This conscious collective will is the Communist Party”—the vessel of the “true,” imputed consciousness of the proletariat. Only “the discipline of the Communist Party, the unconditional absorption of the total personality in the praxis of the movement, [is capable] of bringing about an authentic freedom.”

There's a term for this: bureaucratic centralism. Lukács provides ideological, philosophical justifications for “iron proletarian centralism” that move beyond the primarily practical, ad-hoc justifications made by the early Communist International. As a result, “Leninism” (a term only coined after Lenin's death, and which should be distinguished from Bolshevism as it was before the Russian Civil War or even before the ban on factions in 1921) becomes a theory of how the working class can never reach revolutionary class-consciousness without a monolithic, militaristic Communist Party intervening “from without.” What was never actually true about “What Is To Be Done?” is very much true about the final chapter of “History and Class Consciousness.”

Lukács' biography of Lenin merely expands upon that final chapter. And in practice you can see what advocates of bureaucratic centralism like John Rees and his co-thinkers take from Lukács.

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