Reification in the 21st Century

Lukacs' Dialectic – the First Hundred Years

David Black

2008 is a centenary of sorts for the great Hungarian philosopher George Lukacs (1886-1971). A centenary because a hundred years ago, in Budapest, Lukacs produced his first work, a prize-winning study of German drama. In 1922, following his leading participation in the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic, Lukacs published his most influential work, a collection essays entitled History and Class Consciousness. Lukacs' ‘problematic’ of a reified ‘false’ consciousness - which can only be grasped in relation to its non-reified liberatory alternative - deeply impacted on the philosophers of the 20th Century: especially Adorno, Sartre, Marcuse, Merleau-Ponty, Debord, Edward Said – and maybe even Heidegger. Lukacs continues to engage thinkers in various fields, even if most of them see his socialist “solution” as “class-bound” and therefore historically invalidated by the collapse of the Stalinist system he subsequently embraced and eventually hoped to see reformed democratically.

Commodities and Consciousness

In his (pre-Stalinist) essay of 1922, ‘Reification’, Lukacs says that in a capitalist society rational human beings live in a reality that appears to them as alien and irrational, even though they themselves have made it. This contradictory, contemplative “activity” is experienced as “immediacy”; the individual’s experience of the reified existence lacks the “mediations” which could reveal it in its totality and point the way towards a “solution.”

In class terms, Lukacs argues that “objective reality of social existence is in its immediacy ‘the same’ for bourgeoisie and proletariat.” But as a correlate he says that beyond immediacy the “specific categories of mediation” necessary to grasp the totality of reified relations are “fundamentally different” for the bourgeoisie and proletariat, due to their respective positions within the same process. [p159]

Lukacs says of the worker: “Inasmuch as he is incapable in practice of raising himself above the role of object his consciousness is the self-consciousness of the commodity.” However, by “adding self-consciousness to the commodity structure a new element is introduced”; for “when the worker knows himself as a commodity his knowledge is practical. That is to say, this knowledge brings about an objective structural change in the object of knowledge.” [emphasis in original] With this change the possibility arises that this “commodity,” “conscious of itself” at the level of class consciousness, can constitute itself as a “subject-object identity”: a Hegelian “knowledge of totality,” from the “standpoint of the Proletariat,” in which the categories of existence appear in consciousness, not as the determining categories of capitalist economics, but as determinants of the Proletariat’s own objective existence. [p149]

Lukacs does not justify this idea empirically, but instead formulates an “imputed” revolutionary consciousness, which he claims can be determined by relating existing consciousness to the totality of social relationships, so that “it becomes possible to infer the thoughts and feelings men would have in a particular situation,” if they were able to assess how that situation, and the interests arising from it, “impact on immediate action and on the whole structure of society.” [51] For Lukacs, this power to “infer” is embodied in the Party.

Lukacs’ position on consciousness and commodification is based on his interpretation of Marx’s analysis of the ‘Fetishism of Commodities’ in Capital Vol. I. [Ch.1 section 4]. Lukacs says that the essence of the commodity-structure is that it takes on “the character of a thing and thus acquires a ‘phantom objectivity’, an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people.” [p83]

However, it is here, at the heart of Lukacs' analysis that we must ask: is Lukacs being "Marxist" enough? For isn't it the case that Marx’s dialectical analysis of concealment and appearance suggests that the fetishism does not just, as in the case of the money-form, “conceal” the “relation between people” but actually constitutes the “relation between people” and things? In this reading, the reason the “direct social relations between individuals at work” don’t appear is because capitalism is, historically and logically, their negation (such relations existed in pre-capitalist societies, and would also exist in a society based on “production by freely associated men”). Although capital organises co-operation in production, it isolates individuals in their immediacy and forces them to compete with each other through the social “relation between people” that arrives post festum as commodity-exchange on a universal basis.

When Marx asks “Whence, then, arises the enigmatical character of the product of labour, so soon as it assumes the form of commodities?” and answers, “clearly from this form itself,” this suggests that the reified relations can only be uprooted by the abolition of commodity-production. But Lukacs does not seem to rule out the production of commodities in a socialist economy; rather he seems to suggest that commodities would be stripped of the “fetish-character,” but produced nonetheless. For all his critique of the fetish-character of commodities, at no time does he locate that character in the form itself. Rather, Lukacs’ “dialectical conception of totality” dissolves the “fetishistic forms” iin consciousness and reveals them as ideological i.e. “necessary” illusions. [p13]

Raya Dunayevskaya argues that in Lukacs’ transformation of Marx’s concept of reification "into a universal, affecting all of society equally,” the “'becoming conscious' is endowed with a 'neutrality'", and that for all Lukacs writes on the proletariat as the sole revolutionary force, "it does not flow either logically or objectively, either historically or dialectically from his original theory." Crucially, she argues:
"...Lukacs so overstressed 'consciousness' of the proletariat that it overshadowed its praxis which was both material force and reason, so that it left room, at one and the same time, for a slip back into the Hegelian idealism of the 'identical subject-object,' and into substituting the Party that 'knows' for the proletariat."

Dunayevskaya however, recognises Lukacs as having “made his greatest contribution to authentic Marxism by interrelating and making central to his dialectic the interrelationships of the concepts of ‘totality’ and ‘mediation’.” [Power of Negativity 218-21] In exploring these concepts, in order see what else flows from his original theory, it is necessary to consider Lukacs’ critique of Kant.

Totality and Mediation
Kant refuses to grant the mechanical sciences an absolute knowledge of objective reality, but the other side of this refusal is his effort to preserve a self-determined, ethical (and aesthetic) dimension within the subjective realm of freedom.

Kant proceeds from Sense-Perception and Understanding to the higher level of Reason, in which particulars and universals are unified into the Idea. The highest philosophic form of the Idea is represented by Plato’s unconditioned infinite, but Kant places this beyond the reach of Reason because no psychological/sensuous intuition/perception of the empirical world can correspond with it. If we apply the categories supplied by reason to the “infinite” we are caught up in antinomies.

These antinomies arise in cosmological/theological questions, such as ‘does the universe have a beginning and an end in space and time or, is it endless and eternal?’ Kant points out that neither proposition can ever be tested and proved. Also the problem of antinomies arises in political issues, such as the ultimate “Good” (as represented by Plato’s Republic), because of the Kantian “chasm” between “is” and “ought,” and freedom and necessity.

Lukacs sees Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason as the most precise expression of the antinomies of bourgeois society which need to be overcome. But Kant is an admirer of Rousseau, who argues that the essential will of the human being is to be free and self-determined. In the Critique of Practical Reason Kant presents a moral will that, at its highest level, would attain a concrete notion of human “nature,” existing in a universal harmony with the notion of Freedom. Kant accepts the scientific idea of nature as the “aggregate of laws” but, as Lukacs points out, in Kant’s moral philosophy there is a parallel conception drawn from Rousseau’s “value concept” of nature, in which modern rational/scientific institutions are seen as reifying and dehumanising the life of the “People.” Kant sees human feelings as sublime when directed towards a moral destiny, which humans are predisposed towards as an incentive for goodness. And because we can conceive of the possibility of living according to moral reason, that very conception can play a regulative role in our behaviour, if not a direct, constitutive role in society. In the Critique of Judgement Kant investigates the idea that the totality – in Rousseau’s terms, the unity and freedom of the People under the General Will - ought to be established, not as a Beyond, but as a Present. At this point Kant introduces the idea of Teleology: “the idea of collective nature as a system in accordance with the rule of purposes, to which idea all the mechanisms of nature must be subordinated.”

Hegel points out that Kant is here “returning” to Aristotle’s teleological idea that Nature, as a process, adapts itself to end and intelligence, so that in unity one element can be seen as a moment of another. [History of Philosophy, Vol. III. pp. 156-162]. Kant’s moral reason, based on the categorical imperative, subsumes the particular under the general, and subsumes the empirical and the concrete under the ideal and the abstract. However, as a hypothesis, Kant postulates an “intellectus archetypus”: a type of intelligence which would be capable of starting with the particular and advancing to the general; or, in other words, constituting a Good that emanates from the “good” nature of humanity rather than from an abstract ideal that appears to be eternally in conflict with the “crooked wood” of human nature.

Hegel comments on Kant’s “intellectus archetypus”:
“…that this ‘intellectus archetypus’ is the true Idea of the understanding, is a thought which does not strike Kant. Strange to say, he certainly has this idea of the intuitive; and he does not know why it should have no truth - except because our understanding is otherwise constituted, namely such ‘that it proceeds from the analytic universal to the particular’.” [ibid]

Advancing from the particular to the general (universal) is precisely what Lukacs aims for with his concept of “imputed” revolutionary consciousness, in which “it becomes possible to infer the thoughts and feelings men would have in a particular situation” if they were able to situate them within the totality of the social structure and the historical process. Lukacs agrees with Hegel that, beyond immediacy, fate and purposive activity recognise themselves and each other within mediation, and that consciousness is able to discern its essence in necessity. Lukacs comments:
“To go beyond this immediacy can only mean the genesis, the ‘creation’ of the object. But this assumes that the forms of mediation, in and through which it becomes possible to go beyond the immediate existence of objects as they are given, can be shown to be the structural principles and the real tendencies of the objects themselves.” [155]

Lukacs says that the absence of such mediation can be seen most starkly in bourgeois political economy. Unlike for the bourgeoisie, Lukacs argues, “[f]or the proletariat to become aware of the dialectical nature of its existence is a matter of life and death.” [164] This is not just a matter of putting food on the table; there is also the barbarity of war caused by capitalist competion. Lukacs repeatedly speaks of the capitalism of his day, which had just gone through the First World War and the Russian Revolution, as being in its “final crisis” and he draws on the economic theories of Rosa Luxemburg, which sought to explain the economic causes of imperialist rivalry and war.

Luxemburg takes issue with Volume 3 of Capital, where Marx seeks to demonstrate that capital becomes its own barrier because of the Law of the Tendential Fall in the Rate of Profit. Luxemburg comments that one might as well wait for the “extinction of the moon” as wait for the falling rate of profit to plunge the system into crisis. Luxemburg also tackles Marx’s schemas on circulation in Volume 2 of Capital, which appear to demonstrate that accumulation can take place in a society consisting solely of workers and capitalists, without breaking down due to underconsumption of goods produced. Marx argues that a crisis of underconsumption can be avoided because of the preponderance of the production of the means of production over production of the means of consumption – which Luxemburg fails to see as a strictly capitalistic preponderance of the “need” to accumulate over human needs.

Luxemburg, taking issue with Marx, argues that, in order for capital to sell enough of its output to continue the circulation of surplus value, it needs to have not only the capitalists and the workers of the industrialised world at its disposal, but also an increasing number of “third person” consumers in non-capitalist parts of the world; hence imperialism, hence the barbarism of imperialist rivalry, resulting in World War, and hence World Revolution. [See Raya Dunayevskaya, Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution 31-50] Lukacs in 1922 saw no future for civilization in the capitalist form that had spawned the horrors of the First World War and the “anarchy” of the post-War economic crisis – an opinion shared by Trotsky and the Council Communists. Clearly, he was wrong.

Totality as Globalisation
Whatever the shortcomings of History and Class Consciousness, the importance that Lukacs places on Kantianism has been vindicated historically. Kant’s 1784 essay, Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View, considers the idea that human freedom and self-determination, “beyond the mechanical ordering of his animal existence,” is willed by nature, “independently of [animal] instinct.” Kant’s radicalism seems to prefigure the Communist Manifesto when he says:
“The means employed by nature to bring about the development of all the capacities of men is their antagonism in society… the unsocial sociability, i.e. their propensity to enter into society, bound together with a mutual opposition, which constantly threatens to break up society.”

Kant then, like Lukacs, is concerned with the moral individual who confronts an unsympathetic empirical world of mechanical laws. Kant says that history becomes a process – “progress” - which binds individuals together in exploitative relationships. But exploitation contradicts Kant’s categorical imperative that no individual should treat other individuals as a means to his or her own ends, but should instead treat them as ends in themselves. Kant says that moral wisdom must remain “an unceasing reproach” to “the realm of brute nature,” but he concludes that the best we can hope for is a gradual, “infinite progress” from “is” towards “ought.”

As a final providential gesture towards bourgeois optimism, Kant postulates an eventual “perpetual peace” on a global scale, quite at odds with the perspective of Rosa Luxemburg (though not quite at odds with that of Kautsky and social democracy). Kant bases his postulate on his expectation that, as traffic, trade and industry spread throughout the world, the leading nations would need to collectively manage the available natural and human resources. To achieve this, nation states would have to recognise that the selfish and increasingly destructive behaviour of competing trading powers would become self-defeating. And so the “crooked wood” of humanity might be straightened by its own competitive crookedness. Kant foresees the type of international bodies we have over 200 years later, such as the UN, WTO and G8. Kant does not think revolutions can bring about the perpetual peace, but he does think that individuals can prepare for this new world by inward moral improvement. Therefore, he is today the moral philosopher par excellence for the “progressive” New Age “ethical consumer,” who believes “change comes from within.”

Although it is not impossible that members of the G8 will end up waging war on each other, this does not seem likely in the foreseeable future. The priority for the G8 leaders is to agree on international arrangements which will enable them to extract value from the workers and natural resources of the world “in peace.” The “peace” does not of course negate the “right” of the strong-and-willing to invade countries whom they regard as lacking “legitimate,” “civil societies” and can be portrayed as a “threat” (such a “right” is, incidentally, prohibited by Kant’s maxim that "No State Shall by Force Interfere with the Constitution or Government of Another State”).

In the opposition, “anti-globalisation,” camp, the priority of the G8 protestors is to fight their single-issue campaigns. The NGOs, in order to preserve their “activist” credibility, exert ideological leverage (“moral pressure”) on political leaders whom they are very careful about keeping their distance from. Gaspar Tamas rightly refers to this as “statism by proxy.” Here again, despite the “anti-globalist” ideology, Kantianism re-emerges in the idea of the “infinite progress” towards a “fairer” and “safer” world, in which the self-edifying consumer becomes the agency for the “oughts” of “Make Poverty History” and “Stop Global Warming.”

The “final crisis” perspective of Lukacs, Luxemburg and others was invalidated during the course of the 20th century, based as it was on underconsumptionism. Marx’s much-misunderstood Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall, on the other hand, has a serious claim to validity, both logically and empirically. (as shown in Andrew Kliman’s recent book Reclaiming Marx’s 'Capital': A Refutation of the Myth of Inconsistency').

A "Socialism for the 21st Century”?
For Lukacs, in 1922, only after a “laborious process,” which would include the “seizure of power by the proletariat” and the “organisation of the state and the economy on socialist lines,” could the “reified form” of objects be sloughed off. In conclusion Lukacs posed two alternatives: either the proletariat would be “given the opportunity to substitute its own positive contents for the emptied and bursting husks” of the fetishistic forms; or, “it might adapt itself ideologically to conform to these, the emptiest and most decadent forms of bourgeois culture.” [208]

Whether or not the term “decadent” had any useful meaning then or now (which is doubtful), clearly the “laborious process” had the opposite effect Lukacs hoped for, resulting in tyrannical state-capitalism, as is recognised by a present-day Hungarian Marxist, Gaspar Tamas. In ‘Telling the Truth About Class’ [Socialist Register 2006]. Tamas - like Lukacs - charts the history of the Left as the retreat “from Hegel and Marx to Kant,” as well as “the retreat from socialism to egalitarianism, from Marx to Rousseau, the retreat from critical theory to ahistorical moral critique.”

Tamas highlights for critical attention Edward P. Thompson’s masterpiece, The Making of the English Working Class. Thompson, covering the period 1780 to 1832, shows how the working class formed and defined itself as morally superior to, and culturally independent of, the bourgeoisie, thus enabling it to form its first national organisation – Chartism – in the late-1830s. But Tamas sees Thompson’s approach, along with Gramsci’s perspective for working class “hegemony,” as Rousseauian Marxism: “Whereas Marx and Marxism aim at the abolition of the proletariat, Thompson aims at the apotheosis and triumphant survival of the proletariat.” Unlike Rousseau, Marx is the poet of “Faustian demonism,” in which capitalism is the “final revelation” that can only be reached by “wading through the muck of estrangement.” Marx “does not oppose capitalism ideologically; but Rousseau does. For Marx, it is history; for Rousseau, it is evil.”

Tamas, argues that with the collapse of traditional Lassallean/Rousseauian socialist, (and Stalinist) parties, along with their sectish social and political cultures, we can now see that their historical mission – in which they upstaged the liberal bourgeoisie - was to clear the way for a class-bound capitalism proper, by removing the historical obstacles: feudalism, fascism and eventually, the statist Rousseauian socialism they themselves had created.

The collapse of communism can be seen, in one sense, as a revolutionary-democratic upsurge by the peoples of Eastern Europe demanding their freedom. In another sense it can be seen as the result of Western capitalism's attempt to resolve its own problems: by applying pressure to implode the statist economies of the East in order to integrate them into the restructured “New World Order” that is now simply called globalised capitalism. Despite this supposed assault on “state control,” the reality is that, in the post-communist world, bourgeois class interests are, as Tamas points out, “taken over more and more by the state.”

If what remains of party politics is merely the media-run “debate” on how much of “egalitarian” policy is compatible with the “autonomous” and “final” demands of the economy then can a new “Socialism for the 21st Century” go beyond the “traditional” arguments for workers control and the “planned economy”? The US Marxist-Humanist journal News and Letters addresses this question in arguing:
“The restructuring of global capital has undermined not only the basis of liberalism but also versions of radicalism that reduced "socialism" to nationalized property and state control of industry. Yet many in the anti-vanguardist, autonomist and anarchist Left stop dead at affirming the need for workers' control without considering how value production subordinates the workers' activity to an alien power even when workers have POLITICAL control over some aspects of the labor process. This reluctance to concretely address what is needed to transcend capitalist value production has left the door open for narrow tendencies to step in and offer various false alternatives.” [August 2007]

Indeed, if commodified value-production was uprooted, a step Marx thought absolutely necessary to reach the “realm of freedom,” then the proletariat would cease to exist. And there is nothing in either the young or old Marx to suggest that he ever saw the political and cultural self-preservation of the proletariat within the alienated world of capitalism as serving any other purpose than its self-abolition – although he believed that many decades would have to pass before the subjective and objective developments brought about revolution. If, as Tamas claims, “Class as an economic reality exists and it is as fundamental as ever,” then the extinction of past cultural and political forms doesn’t necessarily mean that new ones can’t emerge which will go deeper than culture or politics; rather it may provide the impetus for such an emergence to take place. A Rousseauian/Lassallean Marxism there was and might still be. But a Rousseauian/Lassallean Marx there never was. The problem of History and Class Consciousness addressed by Lukacs remains unresolved.

[18 January 2008]

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From Chris Cutrone

The article by David Black (of the British Marxist-Humanists) on Lukacs and tasks of a Marxian politics for today, is very good at raising a number of issues of pertinence to the Platypus project and Lukacs's place in it.
Black writes that,For Lukacs, in 1922, only after a “laborious process,” which would include the “seizure of power by the proletariat” and the “organisation of the state and the economy on socialist lines,” could the “reified form” of objects be sloughed off. In conclusion Lukacs posed two alternatives: either the proletariat would be “given the opportunity to substitute its own positive contents for the emptied and bursting husks” of the fetishistic forms; or, “it might adapt itself ideologically to conform to these, the emptiest and most decadent forms of bourgeois culture.”

"[. . . However,] clearly the 'laborious process' had the opposite effect Lukacs hoped for, resulting in tyrannical state-capitalism [of the USSR etc.]."

But the real point is that the working class *never* seized power at a global scale and so the process that the USSR etc. underwent in isolation cannot be understood as the process of the transition beyond capital foreseen by Marx, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Lukacs, et al. So Black's article in this sense, in Trotsky's terms, "opposes Stalinism politically but accepts it methodologically" (In Defense of Marxism, 1939-40), because it accepts the national-state frame for consideration of the trajectory of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and fails to register it as part of an international -- "world historic" -- process of counterrevolution and reaction after the failure of the global anticapitalist revolution that opened (but only abortively) in 1917-19 in Russia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, etc.

At least Black concludes that, "The problem of History and Class Consciousness addressed by Lukacs remains unresolved."
-- The very point of the Platypus project.
-- Chris

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