Georg Lukács’s Two Natures: The Centenary of “History and Class Consciousness”
By Mitchell CohenNovember 17, 2023
History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics by Georg Lukács
Those words did not issue from an American conservative fretting about academic or cultural perils in the 2020s. They date to 1924. The speaker, Bolshevik politician Grigory Zinoviev, was chairing a congress of the Comintern in Moscow. Delegates saluted his denunciation of professors.
A principal target—there were several—was a Hungarian communist intellectual versed deeply in German philosophy who was not, in fact, academically employed. Georg Lukács, age 38, was a political exile working in Vienna to rebuild a factious, pummeled Hungarian communist party after the failure, in 1919, of a short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic in which he was a deputy commissar. Before converting suddenly to Bolshevism the year before—“Saul became Paul,” a friend said—he had been a formidable cultural critic, preoccupied with what he deemed the hollowness of bourgeois life. He agonized: can humanity find a home in an atomizing, fragmenting reality? He found it in Marxism–Leninism, declaring that there were “tragic situations” in which the “inferior self” had to be sacrificed to “the higher idea” if evil times were to be transcended.
In 1923, he published in Berlin a volume of essays of what can be called “high theory.” That collection, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, was soon recognized as perhaps the most original Marxist philosophical text after Marx. And it unleashed denunciations from across the leftist spectrum: Social Democrats didn’t like Lukács’s fidelity to Lenin, while Bolsheviks devoted to uniformity in their ranks deemed him unorthodox.
In this, its centenary year—and almost three and a half decades after communism’s collapse—the book’s legacies are multiple and knotty, not least because its author also amassed a lifetime of self-abasing public retractions (not always earnest) of his own works. Today, History and Class Consciousness is inevitably read not only for its arguments but also in light of Lukács’s subsequent, often harrowing career and the book’s afterlife. After moving to Stalin’s capital in 1930, Lukács endured life there during the Moscow Trials (he was briefly jailed in 1941), returning to Budapest after the war. After his own party came to power in Hungary, he zigzagged through its twisting, perilous party lines. He was purged and had to “self-criticize.”
He then became minister of culture during Hungary’s short anti-Stalinist uprising of 1956, led by a communist reformer, Imre Nagy. After Warsaw Pact troops overran the country to “save socialism,” Lukács was seized—a story has him responding to an interrogator who asked if he had a weapon by offering his pen—and deported to Romania, narrowly escaping execution. Returned to Budapest under house arrest, he still insisted that he was the true Bolshevik (an implied contrast to the reinstated ruling party). In his last years, he continued to write extensively on philosophy and literature, as he had before he became a Marxist and throughout his life as one, but also on what “democratization” of communism might mean. He decried the invasion of Czechoslovakia.
And he distanced himself continually from History and Class Consciousness. Lukács objected when it appeared in French in 1961, insisting that his later writings were his real life’s work. His preface to its German republication in his Collected Works in 1967 declares it an early “experimental” effort of no contemporary relevance. A full English translation came also in 1967 (a chapter had been translated a decade earlier by Michael Harrington, later the United States’ leading socialist). Many New Left intellectuals in numerous countries engaged Lukács’s book with eagerness.
In the meantime, it had garnered an underground celebrity over decades thanks mostly to those who could read the original German and manage to get their hands on a copy. History and Class Consciousness stirred an array of unconventional and subsequently famous thinkers, including what became the Frankfurt School (e.g., Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse), and also Walter Benjamin and, later, the Romanian-born critic Lucien Goldmann. It inspired currents that would be known broadly as “Marxist humanist” or “Western Marxist,” which resisted—not always successfully—the mental straitjackets imposed from Moscow or elsewhere. All the while, Lukács wiggled within and grated against those trusses, gaining him the reputation, for some, of a man who, like Goethe’s Faust, had two beating hearts—one being that of an admired, cultured, radical humanist, the other that of a compromised militant.
The book’s opening chapter asked, “What Is Orthodox Marxism?” That question and his answer signal why History and Class Consciousness was both bracing and problematic. Believing that Marx bequeathed a definitive “science” of society, too many Marxists had come to recite intellectually calcifying catechisms, convinced that the facts of history were on their side. Perhaps the most famous and repeated tenet was that “superstructures”—ideology, law, culture—reflected a society’s economy, its “base.” The former, in unsubtle minds, emerged mechanically from the latter. Questions of human “consciousness” and culture, life’s “subjective” dimensions, became secondary and derivative of “objective” economic structures. For Lukács, this design was wanting philosophically; in his view, a Marxist could be “orthodox” even if Marx got all the particulars wrong. Lukács also believed history to be on his side but that it could be given a push.
What mattered, he contended, was not devotion to a master’s texts but a “method” of grasping history. Lukács defined this method in terms that can be daunting to anyone unpracticed in the often loaded terminology of German philosophy: it was “the point of view of totality.” After all, Hegel’s “dialectical” philosophy, which had so shaped Marx in the early 19th century, declared that “the whole is the true.” Lukács was sure that truth lay in a social class, the proletariat—urban, wage-earning workers, as described by Marx—whose interests, he believed, were those of all humanity. The proletariat would become the world’s vast majority as capitalism spread, and would then revolutionize history as none before it.
All this can seem mystifying today and makes it somewhat treacherous to tease out the book’s lasting value. After all, a claim to grasp the “totality” of history goes quite far, and the proletariat didn’t play the role Marxists ascribed to it. T. B. Bottomore, a British sociologist with strong sympathies for Lukács’s achievement, was surely right to ask, in a symposium on History and Class Consciousness shortly before its author’s death, “[W]hat is the sense of saying that Marxist orthodoxy consists in accepting Marx’s method if at the same it should be the case that this method produces nothing but false theses?” A good many 20th-century Marxists squirmed through (or around) that question. Yet once words like “totality” are deciphered and disenchanted, once History and Class Consciousness is emptied of some intellectual baggage, the book harbors not only some false theses but also resonant arguments.
The book challenged what Lukács called, in a robust phrase, “petrified factuality.” Historical or social “facts” never “speak for themselves”; their meanings emerge only when placed in larger wholes. Thus, “facts,” Lukács explained, have to be recognized and “transcended” at the same time. To think that “every piece of data from economic life, every statistic, every raw event already constitutes an important fact” fails to recognize how any inventory of facts gets ordered and interpreted. A fact gains significance only in relation to other facts, and that requires situating them in changing historical processes. “Petrify” social and economic facts and you may indeed observe them in front of you, but at the price of purging what makes them—their past, how they fit into the world. You also won’t see possible futures in them; instead, they become a world of mere “things,” taken to be as “natural” and unalterable as, well, nature itself (or nature as many once conceived it). They become a “second nature.”
In part, Lukács meant to contest anti-Bolsheviks within the European Left such as Social Democrats who argued that Lenin’s seizure of power was encumbered fatally by an overwhelmingly peasant Russian society. Only an advanced capitalist stage of history, they asserted, could produce the industrial capacities needed for material abundance, a precondition of the transformation into egalitarian socialism. For Lukács, these were the claims of reformers who didn’t grasp what the proletariat had to be; since they weren’t true revolutionaries, they missed the historical conjuncture—the bigger picture. He believed that a new world was on the immediate horizon, and his ideas were imbued by messianism thanks to Bolshevism’s initial success. Instead of a philosophical concept, “totality” became the point of view of the proletariat—its “consciousness.” If most workers didn’t possess this, Lenin’s party did on their behalf.
Within these sweeping but dizzying, powerful yet questionable contentions, Lukács developed his most compelling idea. It was rooted in his remarkably adroit reading of Marx’s Capital, the first volume of which appeared a half century before. Marx’s discussion of “the fetishism of commodities” became, in Lukács’s text, a critique of how “reification”—the process by which human products come to be perceived by their makers as “things” detached from them—vitiates life and culture in market societies. He implied that understanding economic structures, though obviously important, was insufficient because the subjective dimension of life—consciousness—was also a key factor, a notion that became central to left-wing cultural criticism in coming decades.
These claims were anticipated in “Alienated Labor,” a text Marx wrote in 1844, and which was part of what came to be known collectively as the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. It was not published in Marx’s lifetime and was unknown to Lukács in 1923. Marx’s essay on “alienated labor” became available only in the early 1930s, thanks to archives in Moscow where Lukács was then working. By this point he had already disavowed History and Class Consciousness. He would even claim, in an emblematic feint, that reading Marx’s essay revealed that he had misread Capital, when it in fact showed the opposite.
Marx wrote that his concern in Capital was “exclusively human” labor. What happens, he asked, to the products of human labor—and their makers—when the purpose is solely exchange as commodities? What happens when labor power itself becomes a commodity rather than an expression of human needs, energy, and creative endeavor? To penetrate these dynamics, Marx’s 1844 essay elucidated what “human” means, distinguishing it from animal nature. Animals, he wrote, are “one” with their activities (i.e., they are instinctual) while human acts are the result of imagination and will. In Capital, he pursued the same notion: a spider’s or bee’s doings may seem like those of a weaver or an architect, but for the latter they arise in imagination before being worked into the world. Objects become meaningless in human terms when they are made solely to be placed on the market to profit the capitalists who own the means of production and who buy the labor of workers.
Such products become estranged or “alienated” from the real makers. Commodities appear as “things” in relations with other “things,” and in this reified world they move “up and down” on markets and “circulate” as if they were natural phenomena rather than human creations. Such dehumanization, thought Marx and Lukács (and generations of socialists), could only be transcended if property was communally rather than privately owned and work itself reconceived. If you cannot recognize that your labor has generated a world of “phantom objectivity,” as Lukács called it, then you will never imagine alternatives.
Lukács’s arguments echoed the influence on him of two renowned non-Marxist sociologists, Georg Simmel and Max Weber. (He had studied with both.) Simmel’s The Philosophy of Money (1900) proposed that societies dominated in all their facets by monetary exchange wind up dissolving life’s most compelling questions; quantitative issues displace qualitative ones. Weber proposed that the whole of modern society had been “rationalized” by capitalism, making everything calculable and computable. Yet what happens, he wondered pointedly, when matters of value, indeed the entire world of human values, becomes no more than mere calculation?
Lukács, in turn, maintained that the commodity was the “central, structural problem” of capitalism. It penetrated all aspects of life, and “the fate of the worker”—a living commodity—became that “of society as a whole.” Reification thwarts recognition of human agency, as “things” on markets seem to constitute an unchangeable “second nature.” Recognition by the proletariat that another arrangement is possible—a coming to consciousness of the humanity that lies obscured within commodities—must therefore threaten established order.
Can History and Class Consciousness be saved from … itself? Was it, in Bottomore’s words, too “impregnated with the ideas and concerns of a particular historical time and place,” or can a reassessment of the book retrieve its most striking aspects, such as the theory of reification, while rejecting dubious premises that underlie some of them?
Reassessment would require expurgating the book’s Bolshevik themes and pruning some of its long-outdated Marxist concepts. That’s asking a lot. Lukács came close—but only close—to suggesting this when, in 1966, he dismissed those “in Moscow and in many other places” who still eagerly expected the imminent collapse of capitalism in the West. Marx’s economics were “not really correct,” he admitted. Yet “the core of Marx” remained—“his view of history and his analysis of social consciousness.” In a roundabout way, this was both a nod to and a criticism of the book he had disavowed. Although he was now a proponent of reforming communism, he proved incapable of going a further step and admitting that reformism, like that of the Social Democrats he had chastised, might have been the better way to challenge capitalism.
After all, it is quite possible to distinguish—many have long done so—between championing the well-being of exploited and working people and imagining them to make up, collectively, a messiah-class. It is quite possible to make egalitarianism the horizon of politics while rejecting subservience—even a convoluted subservience like Lukács’s—to parties or movements asserting extravagant (and frequently false) claims, both practical and theoretical.
Even the idea of “totality” can be disenchanted if you don’t make it “the viewpoint of the proletariat” and restrict it to being a tool of understanding. For an illustration—mine, not Lukács’s—consider the head of a chap named Louis. It fell from his person in Paris in January 1793. Add up the event’s details, one after another, and they are not so interesting, although it is a law of nature that a blade slicing through a neck has a factual consequence. Explain that the unfortunate was France’s Bourbon king and the fact of his extinction may be momentous but no longer the important story. A larger process is the one that brought a social order’s end and vast change in the French Revolution. Facts, no longer isolated from history and “petrified,” become telling (even if their ordering may be arguable). Placing them into a “totality” is then not a grand philosophical blur.
Doesn’t Lukács’s book, minus a messiah-class, also suggest something important about a great blur of another kind—one that globalized in the later 20th and early 21st centuries, beginning (more or less) in the Reagan-Thatcher era? Was not the free-market fundamentalism they hailed—it was often called “neoliberalism”—and which had been nurtured intellectually by economists like Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman, as mystifying and bedeviling as “totality”? “The Market” was proclaimed—and reified—as the natural order of things, commanded “spontaneously” through supply and demand. A triad—“The Market,” liberty, and “choice”—was compressed into a whole and identified as the fulfillment of human nature. Imagining otherwise was reckoned futile, even if reality was indeed otherwise throughout most of human history, for better or ill.
The tailspin of Soviet-style communism in the late 1980s and ’90s served to reinforce free-market mythology, which in turn began to run aground as populist nationalisms arose—in Hungary and elsewhere—in response to the neoliberal policies that had failed to make the world happy and democratic.
Twelve years after Lukács’s death in 1971, a canny and gloomy play about him was written by a one-time disciple and translator of his later writings, the poet István Eörsi. His Master’s Voice was an exercise in remembering and forgetting—a Krapp’s Last Tape of the life and times of cerebral Marxism. Instead of Samuel Beckett’s aged figure veering back and forth through his life by means of annually recorded memories, Eörsi interrogates Lukács’s biography (and his own life) through spools of interviews he did with the dying philosopher. Some inventions are added. The play’s exchanges are mostly between the playwright and his “Master’s” recorded voice and ghost.
At one point Lukács’s spirit materializes before Eörsi in a Berlin cabaret. He declares that he “had many problems with Stalin. For example, I could never decide whether he had read Hegel.” It’s easy to imagine a chortle by Stalin’s specter at that, but it suggests a real problem with Lukács rather than with the dictator he served for a long time. The problem with Stalin was mass murder in the name of Marxism, not philosophical acumen (or lack of it). History and Class Consciousness was published before Stalin’s advent; ironically, the dictator consolidated power with initial backing from the same Zinoviev who had denounced “Professor” Lukács, and whom Stalin had shot in 1936.
“Reconsiderations” and “reevaluations” of Lukács carry on, some of greater and some of lesser import. They were jinxed by 1989 and its immediate aftermath, but renewed efforts in the early 21st century have brought a thoughtful amending of his theory of reification by Axel Honneth, an inheritor of the Frankfurt School. Building on philosopher Jürgen Habermas’s ideas, Honneth’s 2007 book Reification: A New Look At An Old Idea (originally given as a series of lectures in 2004–05) sought to make Hegel’s notion of “recognition”—mutual esteem and communication among human beings—the countermeasure to what reification, the turning of humans into things, damages. Rahel Jaeggi’s Alienation (2014) aimed to reconstruct the notion of alienation, while Tyrus Miller’s Georg Lukács and Critical Theory: Aesthetics, History, Utopia (2022) traces the journey of Lukács’s ideas from their earliest formulations through their use by later thinkers.
In his native Hungary, Lukács’s name—and, indeed, any Marxist-flavored vocabulary—is now anathema. This is not surprising given the crass communist regime that fell in 1990, although its loudest foes included former students of Lukács. The Lukács Archives, once housed in his apartment by the Danube, have been shuttered after an unseemly struggle with bureaucrats of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. An embattled Lukács Archives International Foundation protested, backed by petitions signed by intellectuals from several continents.
Lukács is a source of repetitive pique for Hungarian nationalists. A statue of him in Budapest’s Szent István Park was removed in 2017 in a public cleansing of historical memory proposed by a right-wing city-council member. He was supported by the country’s ruling party, the anticommunism of whose leader, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, has morphed into what he now calls “illiberal democracy.” Presumably, Un-Hungarian Activities Committees will protect his country’s culture from what came from Lukács’s pen and from future professors spinning out what Zinoviev decried as “Marxist theories.”
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