These were the words with which Georg Lukács announced his conversion to communism. They were penned a little over one hundred years ago, as a modification of an earlier essay in which he had declared the opposite: that Bolshevism is unconscionable because it sanctions sin.
This conversion — in the words of one of his friends, Anna Lesznai, from “Saul to Paul” — inaugurated a decade in which Lukács revolutionized Marxist philosophy. In the process, he emerged as perhaps the most profoundly philosophical Marxist since Marx himself.
Prior to his socialist conversion, Lukács, born the son of a banker in Budapest, already enjoyed a literary reputation. But from what did he convert? It’s difficult to say. Within his pre-Marxist writings, numerous radical themes compete for space.
While well acquainted with Marx, he had been trained in anti-positivist sociology by Max Weber and George Simmel, both of whom he came to reject, following 1914, on account of their support for World War I. Lukács combined a fascination with Fichte, Kierkegaard, and classical modern literature with a detailed study of academic Neo-Kantian philosophy.
He disdained what he regarded as the crude empiricism of the Social Democratic movement while drawing inspiration from Georges Sorel and Ervin Szabó, radical syndicalist socialists who attempted to overcome the institutionalization of the proletarian movement via recourse to a new, proletarian mythology. He was steeped in classical modern literature, avidly reading Henri Bergson, Hegel, and Dostoyevsky.
In short, Lukács was both radical and miserable in equal measure. His early essays (published in the volume Soul and Form) despaired of the life of a critic who is denied the creativity of the artist or the ethical purity of one who acts. His literary theory and criticism was widely acclaimed, but he was deeply unsatisfied.
He was attracted to figures capable of ethical action while regarding himself as tragically fated and incapable of action, and consequently, of ethical life. His relationships were a mess. He explored the idea of suicide. To paraphrase a great country tune, Lukács was a rich man with a death wish in his eye. Unable to find any spiritual home in an era of “absolute sin,” as he characterized it (quoting Fichte), he craved a new dawn.
Shortly before the October Revolution, Lukács predicted just such a new dawn in The Theory of the Novel. He did so with reference to Dostoyevsky, whose novels he regarded as heralding the advent of a new age, in which the tragic counter-position between individual and society might be overcome for good.
One hundred years ago, in late 1918, Lukács committed himself fully to the promise of a new age: he joined the Hungarian Communist Party. Shortly thereafter, dawn broke.
A New Dawn
On March 21, 1919, Hungary became the home of Europe’s second Soviet revolution. According to the account of a young Hungarian poet, József Nádass, Lukács was delivering a lecture entitled “Old Culture and New Culture” to a packed hall when the Hungarian Soviet Revolution was declared.
In this lecture, Lukács declared: “Liberation from capitalism means liberation from the dominance of economics … The Communist society, as the destruction of capitalism, formulates its positioning precisely here. It endeavours to create such a social order in which everyone shares in the life-style that belonged to the oppressor classes …”
Sadly, news of the revolution disrupted Lukács’s lecture. Fortunately, he was able to complete it some weeks later, speaking at the Marx-Engels Workers’ University that he helped to establish. This lecture — translated in the 1960s, and published by the New Left journal Telos — stands as one of the early documents of Lukács’s Marxism.
The above-quoted lines give us a sense of the vision that Lukács sought to carry out when the young Soviet Republic named him deputy commissar for Cultural and Educational Affairs. As deputy commissar, Lukács achieved a huge amount in a short space of time.
He nationalized all privately owned theaters and initiated the redistribution of pre-sold theater tickets from the bourgeoisie and aristocracy to workers and the poor. His commissariat issued the proclamation: “From now on, the theater belongs to the people! Art will not anymore be the privilege of the leisurely rich. Culture is the rightful due of the working people.” Lukács created special workers’ box-offices that sold tickets at cut price. The Commissariat also established an actors’ union, for which Bela Lugosi became a leading activist, precipitating his flight to America following the collapse of the Soviet Republic.
The Commissariat for Cultural and Educational Affairs, under Lukács’s leadership and with the active collaboration of art historians, drew up a list of privately owned significant artworks in Hungary — including masterpieces by El Greco, Goya, Delacroix, Millet, Manet, Courbet, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Constable, Cézanne, Pissarro, Gauguin, Rossetti, Renoir, Van Gogh, Matisse, Monet, Degas and Jan Steen, not to mention a number of Hungarian artists.
In the course of this massive nationalization program, Lukács’s men had to search the property of one of the Counts Batthyány. When a painting by Brueghel that was known to be in his collection couldn’t be found, they knocked down the walls of his mansion until the walled-up painting had been recovered. Lukács’s Commissariat then made these hitherto coveted artworks available to the people by staging a magnificent and unprecedented “First Exhibition of Art Treasures Taken Into Public Ownership.”
Beyond this, institutions for adult education catering to workers were established — including the above-mentioned Marx-Engels Workers’ University. Faculties were radically restructured to train secondary school teachers, while Marxist classics such as The Civil War in France and Socialism, Utopian and Scientific were added to reading lists hitherto packed with antiquated and dogmatic religious texts.
In a measure that would surely be welcomed by today’s academic precariat, radical intellectuals (for example, Karl Mannheim) were given lectureships and professorships. Lukács’s Commissariat also established a registry of recognized writers who would receive a regular income. Its founding document noted: “Quality, political worldview or orientation are not taken into consideration. The registry committee is not functioning as a body for criticism. Its work only involves distinguishing dilettantes from professional writers.” Naturally, they also set up an appeals process, allowing anyone dealt with unfairly to contest a ruling.
This approach roughly encapsulated the attitude towards art and culture that Lukács defended within the Commissariat. He coined the slogan “Art is the end and politics is the means,” and authored a proclamation declaring that the Commissariat would support classical and quality art, even where it contradicted the politics of the republic.
As deputy commissar, Lukács would “… not tolerate the corruption of taste with editorial poetastery written for political purposes.” Equally, he resisted calls from various quarters that the Soviet Republic take sides in artistic disputes or to promote this or that artist as poet laurate of the revolution. While not disavowing his own judgements, Lukács deferred the evaluation culture to a future, free proletariat. He saw his task as preparing the ground for this flourishing.
Lukács’s Commissariat organized the first Hungarian translation of Capital. Literary classics were also translated — including the complete works of Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, and other world-historic authors. To make culture available to the people, Lukács established mobile libraries, run by janitors, which serviced working class districts.
Children were not ignored. The Commissariat established a sex education program aimed at schoolchildren — the first of its kind in deeply Christian Hungary. One apocryphal story suggests that Ana Lesznai once asked Lukács what would become of the fairy tales they both loved. He is said to have replied that they would become true: that under communism, the stones and the trees would speak. Shy of this, the Commissariat established a Fable Department, headed by Béla Balázs and Lesznai. The department organized travelling puppet shows as well as afternoons of fables which were accompanied by an artist who produced drawings to illustrate the various themes, in order that children be exposed to “beautiful and instructive” culture.
Lukács on the Road to Petrograd
The Hungarian Soviet Republic was founded prematurely, both politically and strategically. It was crippled by isolation and a lack of political clarity, in some measure born of the ill-fated alliance between the Hungarian Communists and Social Democrats.
So, the young workers’ state was tragically fated. More than anyone, Lukács embodied its tragic spirit. According to an account by a Social Democratic observer, Lukács could often be found in the Soviet House, holding informal discussions. The same observer reports that at one such gathering, Lukács argued:
… we Communists are like Judas. It is our bloody work to crucify Christ. But this sinful work is at the same time our calling: only through death on the cross does Christ become God, and this is necessary to be able to save the world. We Communists then take the sins of the world upon us, in order to be able thereby to save the world.
This tragic-messianic attitude remained intact when Lukács was called on to lead as a frontlines military commissar, as the Soviet Republic was encircled. In addition to winning popularity due to his detailed attention to the state of the field kitchen, it is said that Lukács was given to exposing himself to enemy fire by walking above the trenches. He justified this, arguing that if he wished to take life, he must give his opponent a chance to reciprocate the gesture.
When the Hungarian Soviet Republic collapsed, Lukács was instructed by the Communist Leader Béla Kun (who had recruited him) to remain behind and, despite his public profile and notoriety, to organize underground. This he did, despite suspecting that that Kun had given him this assignment hoping that his notoriety would lead to capture and execution. Nevertheless, these months underground began Lukács’s political apprenticeship, which he continued in earnest after escaping for Vienna in late 1919.
In Vienna three factors converged to mature Lukács’s politics. Firstly, he studied Marx, Hegel, and Lenin and struggled to grasp the concrete details of the Revolution that had taken place in Russia in 1917. Secondly, he collaborated with the trade union leader Jenő Landler against Béla Kun’s leadership. Kun was a follower of Grigory Zinoviev and the main Hungarian representative of the Comintern. In those years, Zinoviev and Kun favored a bureaucratic and sectarian policy which aimed at forcing the pace of revolution artificially. This generally led to disaster.
For example, despite the criminalization of the Hungarian Communist Party, Kun tried to push through a policy forbidding Communists to pay union dues that would go to the Social Democratic Party. This measure would have made union membership untenable for rank and file HCP members, exposing them as communists and, consequently, to repression. Lukács’s acquaintance with the reality of underground work made him balk at such a suicidal, faux-radical policy.
In retrospect, the only good decision Béla Kun ever made was to recruit Lukács. The latter expressed his growing contempt for the sectarian and ultra-revolutionary leadership of the HCP in an essay entitled “The Politics of Illusion – Yet Again.” This essay marks a turning point in Lukács’s politics. It is collected, along with a selection of his other early Marxist writings in the edition entitled Tactics and Ethics.
The third — and often overlooked — factor precipitating Lukács’s political and intellectual maturation was his growing relationship with Gertrúd Bortstieber, a fellow member of the Hungarian Communist Party, who he later described as “… a synthesis of patience and impatience; great human tolerance combined with hatred of everything base.” He credited Gertrúd with introducing him to a concrete approach to ethics, Marxian economics (particularly Marx, Luxemburg and Bukharin), and history. He later wrote: “Whereas I was often a bungling dilettante — she [Gertrúd] in fact achieved a grasp of the most crucial matters.” While in exile, Lukács married Gertrúd in secret.
Thus Lukács transformed his outlook. In place of a beautiful, tragic death-wish that would not have been out of place in Dostoyevksy or a Nicolas Ray film noir, Lukács developed a concrete and grounded approach to revolutionary politics. This culminated in his early-Marxist masterpiece History and Class Consciousness (HCC).
Until very recently, it was common to regard HCC as an unstable synthesis of Hegel, Neo-Kantian philosophy, and Marx. When it appeared in 1923, it was roundly denounced by apparatchik-philosophers associated with the growing bureaucracy in Russia and the parties of the Comintern.
This was partly inspired by Béla Kun’s enmity. The broader cause was that Lukács — like his contemporaries, Trotsky and Gramsci — represented an increasingly marginalized third position which mediated between ultra-leftism and conservatism. This did not suit the Moscow bureaucracy which sought to impose its often abstract and disconnected leadership on the workers’ movements of Europe.
No less than Grigory Zinoviev denounced Lukács — as well as his then co-thinker and ally, Karl Korsch — at the Fifth Congress of the Comintern, telling the delegates: “If we get a few more of these professors spinning out their Marxist theories we shall be lost.”
Zinoviev, for his part, spurred the formerly Menshevik Soviet academic Abram Deborin into action. Deborin, echoed by his Hungarian equivalent, László Rudas, accused Lukács of Hegelian idealism, of denying the existence of nature external to humanity, of political voluntarism and ultra-leftism, and of debasing materialism by importing neo-Kantian historical relativism into Marxism.
Unsurprisingly, they were joined by their German and even Social Democratic equivalents — all intellectuals who are remembered only by virtue of their low-quality polemics against Lukács. These apparatchiks spoke, in the words of Lukács’s contemporary radical philosopher Ernst Bloch, like “uneducated dogs.”
These criticisms of Lukács became widespread — including among those who should have known better. They were echoed first by Theodor Adorno, and later, by Marxists and critical theorists as disparate as Althusser, Lucio Coletti, Habermas, Kołakowski and, most recently, by Axel Honneth. The uniformity of these criticisms — to which were added the charge that Lukács sought to reduce all objectivity to subjectivity and, in some cases, that he favored an authoritarian version of Leninism — was such that even the elder Lukács came to repeat them, in self-criticism.
Things have begun to change. In recent years, for the first time, the dominant discourse on Lukács has begun to alter. One hundred years of distance probably help. Free from the prejudices and political agendas shaped by a century divided between a liberal west and an authoritarian Eastern Bloc, this is an exciting time to re-read Lukács.
Whoever does so with clear eyes will find insights which both spur thought and which are startlingly relevant to our times.
Reification is the concept most associated with Lukács’s 1920s philosophy of praxis. While this term occurs only once in Marx’s Capital, Lukács builds it as an extension of the former’s theory of commodity fetishism. Like Marx, Lukács wished to understand how social relations — created by human beings in relation with each other and the natural world they encounter — become object-like. He also wished to understand how this transforms human beings into objects.
To this end, he cited the example of a factory. While the technology involved in a factory (or, we may add, a modern warehouse or call center) is often deeply inhuman, there is nothing in principle capitalistic about either machinery or mass production. It is just as possible to imagine large scale production, design, and technology serving and extending human needs and abilities.
Yet in the workplaces of Lukács’s time — and our own — work is oppressive. Work requires the laborer to become machinelike by demanding that movements (or intellectual labor as in teaching) be rationally quantified and rendered more efficient and predictable. This renders human idiosyncrasy a mistake to be ironed out.
Observations such as these were not uncommon among the generation of social theorists who worked prior to Lukács, such as Max Weber or Georg Simmel, both of whom traced, in different ways, the rise of a culture of instrumental rationality and exchange relations. Where Lukács differed, however, is that he explained this via Marx’s account of commodity fetishism.
Commodities are exchanged according to their market value which is measured quantitatively, in money. This value has nothing to do with the essential qualities possessed by commodities: it is impossible to derive monetary value from the use of a house, a car, or a computer. Rather, as Marx observed in the first chapter of Capital, value is determined by the labor time required to produce something. However, as Marx also argued, labor is qualitative and variable.
So, in order for modern, exchange-oriented production to be predictable, labor must be abstracted and quantified. The use-value of concrete labor is that it produces a real, qualitative, and tangible utility. Yet the exchange value of labor is a wage; a quantity of money. Exploitation emerges from the difference between concrete labor and abstract labor. With concrete labor, a worker produces new value. They are paid, however, only for their abstract labor — that is, in accordance with an hourly rate.
Lukács both deepened this critique of commodity production and extended it to the totality of social relations. He deepened it by observing that a worker is made into an object while at work: they are expected to perform regularly, predictably, and quantitatively, in return for a wage.
Lukács, who believed that human essence is creative and qualitative, saw this as a source of degradation. Time, he argued, should be regarded as concrete — take the examples of an artisan or someone who is raising children. For one craftsperson to make a guitar, it simply takes as long as it takes; this depends on the skill of the luthier, the quality of the guitar, and so on. Or, take a parent: to feed a child or put them to sleep, it just takes as long as it takes.
On the other hand, the modern production process depends on standardizing these human types of labor. Time, which should be flowing, qualitative, and concrete becomes abstract and quantitative: time is reduced to flat space. This, in Lukács’s argument, makes the worker himself into an object. By no means is this logic restricted to manual labor. In white-collar professions — for example, teaching — outcomes are increasingly measured by quantitative metrics which flatten and degrade the quality being produced.
This social logic is based on the way the bourgeoisie lives, produces, and organizes the world. The bourgeoisie is an exchanging class that needs predictability and rationality in order to make a profit. So, billions of exchanges every day, as well as the legal system regulating this form of production, render the totality of society abstract and quantitative.
For example, in the law, as Lukács pointed out (following Max Weber), a judge becomes akin to a machine engineered to dispense predictable judgements, provided the necessary inputs (and fees) are inserted. Or, take the criminal justice system. Punishment becomes measured primarily in fines (for minor offenses) or in jail time for more major ones. These are standardized and paired with a supposedly rational carceral system.
These formally rational systems conceal a deep irrationalism: the suffering of a worker on a production line or the bureaucratic inhumanity faced by an inmate in a modern prison. Thus, the apparent even-handedness of modern social structures conceals cruelty. Of course, the people who administer these systems present themselves as impartial and professional. Yet the inhuman rationalism required of them often breeds resentment and violence that is unleashed on the oppressed. Hence the indignant bullying of a manager, the callousness of a bureaucrat, or the sadism of a prison guard.
Crisis and Contemplation
By emphasizing human creativity and quality, Lukács makes the point that capitalism, although it tries to impose formal rationality everywhere, can never subsist without creativity. Thus, the tension between use value and exchange value, or between quality and quantity, runs through society and our individual experience of it. This tension creates crises and incongruities, both at the level of society and in the everyday experience of the individual.
On the level of society, crisis represented, for Lukács, the return of an irrationality that had been suppressed. Financial crisis is the clearest example of this. Billions of transactions, while individually rational, combine to produce deeply irrational patterns and structural tensions. Investment can flood into one sector, with little planning or oversight, leading to speculation, inflation, and over-supply.
When these tensions become too much for an economy to bear, it enters into recession; a crisis of over-production. This has the effect, in Lukács’s view, of making apparent the violence upon which this system is founded. An eviction — or even the struggle of the working poor, to make ends meet in a race where the odds are constantly stacked against us — are examples of this.
Lukács described reification as is imposing upon individuals a “contemplative stance.” That is, individuals are separated from any control over the social relations that dominate us and organize our lives. This means that we confront society with a contemplative attitude, regarding it as natural and unchangeable. Reification conceals the fact that capitalism and social relations have been built and, therefore, can be un-built. This explains the performatively radical “realism” of right-wing thinkers who assert inequality and the “inferiority” of women or nonwhite people as facts of nature.
The term “contemplative stance” shouldn’t be mistaken for describing a condition of passivity. What it describes is a condition of powerlessness. One may be powerless in a frantic fashion or in a resigned fashion. Nor does the contemplative stance imply that one become — like Patrick Bateman — the personification of formal rationality.
Take the example of a Silicon Valley tech bro. Obsessed on the one hand, with A.I., anti-unionism and microdosing-driven efficiency and on the other, with the post-apocalyptic bacchanalia that is Burning Man: this peculiar, fascinating, and repulsive character type is an extreme example. These people have no actual power to alter the laws of society. But they do have the power to alter themselves in order to more hyperactively conform with social laws, and thus improve their position. A glut of rationalism gives way to its opposite, to irrationalism.
For oppressed people, the experience of these contradictions is different. For an executive or an established professional, the contemplative stance — divided between adaptive activity and resignation — may be relatively comfortable or even a source of power and wealth. However, for a worker, reduction to the status of an object is inhuman. For a single mother, the struggle to adapt to the laws of a sexist society can be a crushing weight.
Lukács argued that these experiences of intense dissonance, at the level of the system and the individual, reveal that capitalism is not natural. Instead, it is historically constructed. This insight creates possibilities for resistance.
Making and Unmaking Capitalism
Fortunately, the job of criticizing reification does not depend solely on socialists: Lukács argued that every crisis is capitalism’s own self-criticism. The critique of reification reveals that capitalism is not a system of natural laws, but is in fact a historically contingent expression of the lifestyle of the bourgeoisie. If not natural, capitalism was made: what has been made can be unmade. The unmaking of capitalism, however, requires two things: firstly, a subject capable of re-making the world and secondly, a subject whose position allows it to know the world that it is re-making.
Like Marx in his early revolutionary writings, Lukács nominated the proletariat for this task. He did so for two reasons. Firstly, the proletariat produces value — thus, the reified labor power of the proletariat is the essence of capitalism’s dynamism. More than this, this labor produces everything, from the plastic in a riot cop’s shield, to the programming that underpins the internet, to medicine and housing. The proletariat — like no other class — is in a position to shut everything down.
Shutting everything down requires motivation. Lukács proposed that the germ of such a motivation exists in the experience of total objectification during the working day. Of course, there are many ways to reduce someone to an object. A slave is made an object by a brutally coercive social system. Women are objectified by sexism. Prisoners are treated as objects to be managed and controlled. What is different with the proletariat is that workers are agents in their objectification. We will ourselves to go to work. Thus, even in our deepest objectification, we preserve a remainder of subjective freedom. This was why Lukács described the proletariat as a class of self-conscious commodities.
This provides the precondition — but not the full conditions — for class consciousness. So, when Lukács described the proletariat as the “subject-object of history,” that is, as the collective subject that has the power to transform the world, he was not arguing that this is an actual fact. He was well aware that full class consciousness (i.e., the majority of the proletariat actively and knowingly transforming society) is an exceptional event that can only emerge in the context of deep crisis and tension.
The proof of a theory such as this can only be found in practice. Such a relationship between theory and practice explains the meaning, for Lukács, of philosophy the purpose of which is to foster revolutionary praxis.
Politics and Praxis
In History and Class Consciousness, somewhat paradoxically, Lukács did not address himself primarily to a proletarian audience. Rather, he addressed himself to the Communist movement of Europe, and in particular, to its intellectual leadership. This choice was clearly related to his experience of defeat. Like many in his generation, he believed that communist theory needed to become more flexible and concrete in order to lead the kind of political revolution that could de-reify society. In this regard, Lukács worked on a similar set of problems to the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci.
Lukács, like Gramsci, understood that for the class consciousness of the proletariat to become effective, it needed to be formed and articulated politically. He saw the Communist Party as the main agent of this task. It would serve as the incarnation of the proletarian will and its intellectual leadership.
To those sensitive to the danger of authoritarian Communist central committees (or, to authoritarian Trotskyist central committees in exile), Lukács’s argument about the party as the bearer of class consciousness has raised alarm bells.
It is crucial, then, to note the difference between imputed and actual class consciousness. Imputed class consciousness is the consciousness that socialists ascribe to the working class: it is an “ideal type,” to borrow a Weberian term. Suppose that the entire proletariat became aware of its own interests, both in liberating itself and as opposed to the interests of capital. Such a proletariat would possess class consciousness. From this act of imputation it is possible, then, to outline socialist theory.
Yet such a hypothesis draws attention to the gap between imputed consciousness and actuality. After all, the bulk of the proletariat are under the sway of markedly non-socialist ideas.
This should not mean that we drop the idea of imputed consciousness. As Lukács argued in his Defence of History and Class Consciousness, written in response to his early critics, imputation is part of every serious field of study. For example, a political commentator may suggest that the leadership of say, the Republican Party is acting out of alignment with the interests of the people they represent. This is an act of imputation: one assumes knowledge of the interests of the Republican base and comments accordingly on the orientation of the party’s leadership. It may be a mistaken assessment, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with making it.
The same is true when socialists impute class consciousness to the proletariat. It’s a straightforward argument to suggest that the proletariat would benefit from the abolition of waged labor or from ending racism. Yet to mistake what we think the proletariat should think with what the proletariat does think, will think, or must think is a serious mistake. To compress the distance between imputed consciousness and actual consciousness is a danger. Rather, imputed class consciousness should be seen as a hypothesis. This hypothesis must submit itself to the test of practice.
Practically speaking, if a socialist party is capable of leading a struggle — say, a strike or an electoral campaign — to meaningful victory, then we may say that they have successfully mediated between imputed and actual class consciousness in a particular action. Such an action is dependent on firstly, the party possessing a vision and a strategy, and secondly, this strategy being accepted by the mass of people.
More often than not, strategy must be modified by engagement with practice: thus, there is a dialogue between leadership and led, or, in the more theoretical parlance, between imputed and actual class consciousness. In a successful struggle, a theoretical hypothesis about the power of the proletariat interacts with and informs a practical action. The result is praxis.
In one workplace or one theater of battle, this may result in limited victories. Beyond this, however, Lukács believed that the party — as well as workers’ councils — were crucial to forming the proletariat into a total class capable of altering society. To use Marx’s language, the party and the soviet bridge the distance between a class which exists in-itself and one that exists for-itself.
This is an inherently political question. Moreover, it is one in which no imperious central committee may dictate the line of march: to paraphrase Merleau-Ponty, the relationship between the party and class must be one in which no one commands and no one obeys. Rather, it is a dialogue in which interests are articulated and perspectives are shared.
Rightly or wrongly, these are the qualities which Lukács observed in Lenin’s approach to politics. This was outlined in Lukács’s book, Lenin: A Study in the Unity of His Thought.
Many of the explicitly programmatic political results of Lukács’s investigation seem outdated to modern ears. After all, the twentieth century was replete with attempts to repeat the Bolshevik Revolution, often by building a party on the Leninist model. In no example did this succeed. It has also been decades since the last workers’ council or soviet was formed.
Similarly, the political issues that confront the socialist movement are different today. There is no longer a colonial question to speak of. The peasantry has almost entirely disappeared as a class. On the other hand, today the cultural level is immeasurably higher than it was in Lukács’s time. Almost everyone can read. We have a world of information ready at hand.
These differences do not render Lukács’s political theory irrelevant: the essence of his reading of Lenin was concreteness. That is, he argued that Lenin’s significance was that he was capable — by virtue both of his grasp of theory and his involvement in a living movement — of understanding his conjuncture and the strategic terrain arising from it on a far more concrete and accurate level than his contemporaries. Significantly, this was a reading of Leninism that emphasized democracy. This approach may well be of interest today, as new generations of socialists reject orthodox Stalinist and Trotskyist readings of Lenin.
Nevertheless, Lukács’s main legacy is not political. If we take his argument seriously, a political program must be formed in its own historical conjuncture: to copy a political program transforms it into a reified abstraction. Instead, Lukács’s legacy is philosophical. This is also what differentiated him from his contemporaries. Even where his political approach can be read as aligning with that of with Gramsci, Trotsky, or others, Lukács was different in that he underwrote his politics philosophically. This isn’t to suggest that the former two were unacquainted with philosophy.
Nevertheless, Lukács created a more rigorous and radical philosophical method than any of his contemporaries. This remains his most important gift.
Grasping Intellectual Freedom
Starting with the concepts of reification and the contemplative stance, Lukács argued that these social realities shape the structure of our thought. Thought itself is just as divided and contradictory as reality. These contradictions come in many forms.
For example, the contradictions that structure both production and society recur in thought without us realizing. In politics, for instance, different theories compete to explain how the system works. Liberals have faith in the essential rationality of institutions and propose that under ideal speech conditions, we will all come to agreement. On the other hand, conservatives are at home with violent force, power, and irrational traditions. While conservatives may correctly grasp the role of these factors in producing politics as it is now, their radical realism simply reifies the world. So once more, capitalism is naturalized along with irrationalism and inhumanity.
Such ideologies and contradictions are not just mistaken views. They are inherent in the structures that govern society. Thus, they impact socialist practice. For example, in the essay “Legality and Illegality,” in HCC, Lukács argues that socialist tactics must navigate between the twin poles of fetishizing legality (a la liberals) and fetishizing illegality (a la anarchists). He argued that both of these poles reveal infatuation with the law — although the latter does so covertly. The point of a Marxist critique of the law, then, is to free socialists intellectually so that they may orient strategically with clear eyes. In short, it is necessary to be able to both adhere to the law and break it when necessary; the key question is what must be done next.
Lukács argued that philosophy — as a sphere of knowledge dedicated to reflecting upon knowledge — holds out the promise that we might become conscious of the paradoxical structure of thought and reality, and, in so doing, win for ourselves a measure of intellectual freedom.
Let me put it like this: whenever someone becomes a socialist, they encounter a rich and detailed intellectual tradition, with many competing views, methods, political arguments, and so forth. Inevitably, we make choices: we decide what makes sense to us, based on our reading, our conversations, and our experience. So, we become a part of a living debate, but also, part of a tradition.
This tradition is richly theoretical. Yet it is quite common that this theory remains relatively un-interrogated. Because of this it is very easy to use theory uncritically. After all, our choices (say, to join one party over another or to read this theorist rather than that) seem free, but in reality, they are conditioned by a thousand circumstantial factors that we can only be partially conscious of. There is no way out of this. Yet if we would like not to be pushed around by history and our circumstances, we need to find a way to gain an overview. We need to find a standpoint from which to reflect on what we know and the political choices we make.
This was point of philosophy, for Lukács. Working through philosophy — including so-called “bourgeois” philosophy — gives us intellectual freedom, in order that we may consciously and knowingly use theory, and not be used by it. Witness the abstraction and obtuseness of theoretical dogmatists, both within the Left and outside of it. Think also of the dogmatism associated with many communist, social democratic, or Trotskyist parties.
In these cases, theory and tradition become prisons: instead of allowing us to grasp the world more clearly, dogmatism mistakes theory for reality. This was also the situation Lukács perceived around him — which is why his revaluation of Marxism was often aimed at representatives of theoretical orthodoxy, in both the second and third internationals.
So, Lukács believed that philosophy allows us to win our concrete freedom relative to theory. The point isn’t to throw out theory. In the same way as a principled focus on illegality betrays a secret love for the law, an overly practical-minded rejection of theory implies that one is not conscious, and is therefore dominated intellectually.
Rather, the point is to raise theory to consciousness. This allows us to take responsibility for our own role in building a theory adequate to the struggles of today. This also allows us to engage with our tradition without becoming subservient to it. In short, as Lukács put it, historical materialism must be applied to itself.
Lukács Then, Lukács Now
Hungary today is ruled by one of the most repulsive far-right parties in Europe. Under the prime ministership of Viktor Orbán and the Fidesz party, Hungary has lurched violently in the direction of racism, antisemitism and anti-intellectualism. Political and intellectual freedoms are besieged.
In his native Hungary, then, Lukács’s legacy is under attack. The Lukács Archive has been closed, its materials seized by the government. Scholars associated with Lukács — including his student, Ágnes Heller — have been accused of corruption, hounded and tarred with antisemitic rhetoric.
Paradoxically, in the rest of the world, Lukács is better respected and more widely read than ever before. This is partly due to the resurgence of interest in socialism. Lukács will always cut a fascinating figure, especially to those who are attracted to an uncompromisingly radical and ethical critique of capitalism.
However, one suspects that there are deeper reasons for Lukács’s renewed popularity. In short, no one has gotten it right yet. The Marxist and socialist movement is more intellectually diverse than it ever has been. And yet, there is no viable model for socialist transformation; no socialist breakthrough has proven long-lasting or replicable. We are a long way from October 1917. We need theory and philosophy more than ever before.
In the mid-twentieth century, socialists were polarized by the Soviet Union. Consequently, debates almost always reflected party lines. Marxist theory was divided into warring camps, comprising Communists, Social Democrats, Trotskyists, Maoists, libertarian socialists, and the New Left, not to mention any number of halfway houses. Some theorists, like those of the Frankfurt School, sought a vantage point above these battles. Others departed Marxism altogether as the conservatism of the 1980s and 1990s set in.
We need not disparage any of these traditions to say that we do not belong anymore to that world. We no longer labor under the weight of the Soviet Union or its demise. Our world is one of new possibilities and dangerous challenges. Yet, the twenty-first century is more disillusioned. No one among us can claim absolute truth, although we may well claim we have good reasons for thinking the way we do. And yet, as soon as we enter into the messy work of understanding what is around us, we encounter traditions and theories.
Left unexamined, tradition is destined to cast a shadow over our minds.
This is the situation — simultaneously replete with opportunities, disillusioned and overshadowed by tradition — that allows us to approach Lukács with fresh eyes. The body of knowledge produced by Lukács’s conversion is a gift with which we can think freely and in so doing, both surpass Lukács and win a freer world.