Sunday, 23 October 2016

Lukács's defence of History and Class Consciousness

Following the attacks by Abram Deborin, Laszlo Rudas and others on his History and Class Consciousness, Georg Lukács penned an angry response sometime in 1925 or 1926. The unfinished manuscript was never published and remained unknown for a long time (Lukács himself apparently never mentioned its existence), until it was discovered in the archive of the Comintern and the Central Party Archive of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in Moscow. It was published for the first time in Hungarian and German in 1996. The English version, titled A Defence of History and Class Consciousness: Tailism and the Dialectic, was published by Verso in 2000. Below I'll simply refer to it as the "Defence".

History and Class Consciousnessone went on to become one of the foundational, classical texts of so-called Western Marxism, but Lukács himself repudiated it in the mid-1920s as part of kowtowing to party orthodoxy. This kowtowing was no doubt the reason the manuscript for the "Defense" was left unfinished. Aoart from the "Defense", few texts exist where Lukács even mentions History and Class Consciousness. There is the preface he wrote for the book in 1967, but this preface is little but an extensively argued rejection of his own early work, a text where Lukács goes to great lengths to castigate himself for a series of errors he believes he committed in it, including idealism, revolutionary messianism, misunderstanding the concept of alienation and neglecting the dialectics of nature (Lukács 1971a). In contrast to this preface, the "Defence" is truly a defence of History and Class Consciousness

What is there, then, of interest in the "Defense"? A noteworthy point concerns the importance of praxis - which Lukács discusses in terms of "moment" and "decision" and which he links to a criticism of the fatalist reliance on "process" (Zizek has a striking interpretation of this in his afteword, which, however, seems to overemphasize the decisionist aspect of Lukács's thought). Here's Lukács's definition of the "moment": 
What is a ‘moment’? A situation whose duration may be longer or shorter, but which is distinguished from the process that leads up to it in that it forces together the essential tendencies of that process, and demands that a decision be taken (Lukács 2000: 55)
This, however, is not pure decisionism, because what matters in such moments is class consciousness (ibid. 56). Another long discussion in the book concerns precisely how class consciousness comes into being. As in History and Class Consciousness, he rejects the "spontaneist" position associated with Rosa Luxemburg. The masses can't be trusted to develop this consciousness by itself. Instead, the party becomes decisive, as the place where class consciousness realizes itself. It's the party that "imputes" the consciousness to the workers (ibid. 71ff).

By far the most interesting part of the book concerns the dialectic of nature. In History and Class Consciousness the general thrust of Lukács's argument was to argue that dialectics essentially involved a relation between subject and object, and thus to deny - against Engels - that dialectics could be extended to the subjectless realm of nature. Spotting the weakness of Lukács's position, his critics accused him of lapsing into "dualism" by separating society from nature. Even today, it's popular among commentators to point to the problems and inconsistencies that arise in Lukács's work because of his refusal to extend dialectic to nature. From a variety of angles, commentators like Vogel (1996), Feenberg (2014), Jay (1984: 116), Foster and Loftus have focused on the following contradiction. If dialectics must halt before nature, doesn't this imply that nature is a realm where non-dialectical methods - e.g. those associated with positivism - are legitimate? But if such methods are legitimate, then how can they also represent an instance of reifying, bourgeois thought, as Lukács claims?

How serious are these accusations? In his 1967 preface, Lukács readily admits to the error of having viewed "Marxism exclusively as a theory of society, as social philosophy, and hence to ignore or repudiate it as a theory of nature" in History and Class Consciousness (Lukács 1971a). This admission is hardly surprising, considering the generally dismissive stance Lukács takes in this preface to his book. One has the feeling, however, that his admission is a bit too facile, that it simplifies matters too much. A more complex and interesting argument is set up in the "Defense" where Lukács puts up much more of a fight to defend his statements in History and Class Consciousness.  

In fact, the position expressed in History and Class Consciousness isn't so simple as Lukács pretends in his preface. The argument that the dialectic doesn't apply to nature is thus modified firstly by the repeted insistence that nature is a "social category" - a claim that suggests that our knowledge of nature is decisively shaped by the historical dialectic shaping society. Secondly, it is also modified by a rather odd, isolated passage where Lukács acknowledges the possibility of an objective dialectic operating in nature independently of humans while stressing that the absence of human consciousness in this dialectics means that it is different from the social dialectics and must be studied in a different way (ibid. 1971b: 207). This is odd since it appears to contradict his emphasis elsewhere on the subject-object relation as central to dialectics.

Turning to the "Defence", Lukács presents a number of arguments related to nature. Firstly, he clarifies that he in History and Class Consciousness had talked “only of knowledge of nature and not nature itself” (ibid. 2000: 97). That is the sense in which nature is a social category. It simply means that there is no socially unmediated relationship of humans to nature. This, he argues, follows from Marx’s thesis that our consciousness (which of course includes our consciousness of nature) is determined by our social being (ibid. 100). That society mediates our knowledge of nature, however, doesn't mean that one has to deny the objective, independent existence of nature. “Self-evidently nature and its laws existed before society” – but from that doesn’t follow that “nature would be knowable without the mediation of these new social dialectical forms” (ibid. 102). He repeats the acknowledgement in History and Class Consciousness that there is an objective dialectics in nature that is independent of humans, but insists that humans are still needed “for thinking the dialectic, for dialectic as knowledge” (ibid. 107). On the whole, then, this first argument amounts to a forceful assertion of the priority of a subject-centred dialectics, not only in the realm of society but also in regard to our knowledge of nature.

The second argument is a continuation of this. Lukács defends his decision in History and Class Consciousness to characterize “as the decisive dialectical categories not transformation of quantity into quality, etc., but rather interaction of subject of object” (ibid. 112). This decison implied a rejection of Engels's material dialectics, which had stressed objective laws such as the transformation quantity and quality rather than praxis. To Lukacs, however, the subject-object relation is central because of the historical situation in which the proletariat rises to transform society. Overlooking this need for transformation leads to eternalizing the categories as in bourgeois immediacy, making the concepts lose all dialectic functionality.
‘Dialectical’ categories that have been severed from this connection can even be used by bourgeois researchers; it is not inconceivable that they might, for example, be able to work with the transformation of quantity into quality. The category becomes properly dialectical only in the context of the dialectical totality (ibid. 113)
This, of course, sounds very much like a defense of the general overall conception of dialectics in History and Class Consciousness. But how about the objection that Lukács in that book fails to clarify whether natural science has a legitimate place or not? Is it compatible with a dialectical approach?

To tackle this question, Lukács introduces an important third argument. While natural science - like all consciousness - is determined by society, it “does indeed adopt a special place in the history of human knowledge” (ibid. 113). It would thus be “false relativism” to dismiss it as a merely bourgeois form of thinking or to treat it “in the same way as the knowledge of nature of past epochs” (ibid. 114). While it was born with capitalism, there is a “factual obstacle” to concretizing how natural science is determined by society. The transformation of science only takes place gradually as the effect of the revolution of the material basis and the course of this transformation cannot be known in advance. This means that even socialism must use natural science in its bourgeois form for the time being since a new science has yet to emerge (ibid. 117). In other words, there mere fact that all knowledge is socially determined doesn't mean that we can transcend the horizon of that knowledge and dismiss it as "relative" or as belonging to a past era that has been overcome by the events of 1917. To jump immediately to a more "dialectical" science would be an illegitimate shortcut.    

The question remains, however, why the natural sciences in particular are so hard to transcend compared to, say, the social sciences. Why is it more legitimate to dismiss the use of non-dialectical methods in the latter? Lukács doesn't provide any clear answer to this question in the "Defence", but a reasonable answer would be that our self-awareness directly affects society in a way that isn't true of nature. We don't really need to transcend the horizon of social science to realize that society can't be fully understood without taking praxis or subjectivity into consideration. The fact that non-dialectical methods can be cogently criticized in an immanent fashion within the field of social science means that there is no need to resort to what Lukács calls "false relativism", e.g. dismissing such methods as "bourgeois" or belonging to a bygone era.
As mentioned, Lukács doesn't spell out this answer explicitly. He does, howeveer, add a brief, fourth argument which suggests that this is indeed how he would have answered it. In the realm of society, our palpable experience of frequent change and of the role of human praxis make it easy for us to realize the limits of trying to understand society through ahistorical, non-dialectical categories. In nature, by contrast, it's possible that certain things are eternal or only change so slowly that they may never be known dialectically:
To what extent all knowledge of nature can ever be transformed into historical knowledge, that is to say, whether there are material actualities in nature that never change their structure, or only over such large periods of time that they do not feature as changes for human knowledge, cannot be raised here (ibid. 118)
This passage suggests that the non-dialectical traits of existing natural science may have to be abandoned one day, provided that we come to the realization that nature is more changing and less ahistorical than we thought. However, Lukács leaves it open whether or not this will ever happen.

Looking back, Lukacs's presents four arguments that can be summarized as follows:
  1. Our knowledge of nature is never wholly free of social determinations - implying that even an objectivistic framework for studying nature (e.g. an objectivistic dialectics of nature or natural sciences of the positivistic type) will always be embedded in a social dialectics.
  2. A genuinely dialectical method involves a relation between subject and object rather than being merely objective or contemplative. Even if a dialectics of nature is possible, it can't be studied as if it were merely objective. An objectivistic dialectics wouldn't really be different from ordinary, "bourgeois" science.
  3. But even if existing and seemingly non-dialectical natural sciences are in reality embedded in a social dialectics, they can't yet be simply replaced by any more overtly dialectical method for studying nature, although this might be possible in the future. This is because we cannot anticipate the future science that may result from revolutionizing the material base. Despite existing forms of natural science having their social roots in capitalism, we are stuck with them for the time being.
  4. However, to the extent that nature and its lawlike regularities are subject to change, some form of objective dialectical movement may be taking place in nature. This implies that the methods of non-dialectical natural science will ultimately prove to be insufficient also in the realm of nature. However, we don’t know to what extent such change is happening.
Taken together these arguments do form a kind of defense for, and clarification of, the position Lukács adopts in History and Class Conssciousness. While acknowledging that nature may have its own dialectical laws and that our knowledge of nature is socially mediated, he nevertheless refuses to impose dialectical methods on the study of nature. At least for the time being, the existing non-dialectical methods of natural science are legitimate in relation to nature. At the same time, he holds out the prospect of a different natural science in the future, one that will be self-aware of its own social determination. Before that day comes it won't be possible to discern what in science is tied to bourgeois social formations and what is not. This is admittedly a complex and rather difficult position to defend. But regardless of its strength or weakness, it is much more interesting than the flat capitulation offered in the 1967 preface.

Post-script on Foster

Before ending, I'd like to add a comment on John Bellamy Foster. As I've discussed already (here and here), Foster bases a great part of his criticism of Western Marxism on its restriction of dialectics to the realm of society and praxis. By rejecting Engels's dialectics of nature, he argues, Lukács and other Western Marxists handed over the study of nature to positivism. In his "Defense", however, Lukács anticipates many of the moves Foster makes in order to reconstruct a dialectics of nature. On the one hand, Lukács admits of the possibility of an objective dialectics operating in nature independently of humans (as Foster himself points out). On the other, he also - like Foster - stresses that the act of knowing nature must always involve dialectics.

Considering these similarities, why does Foster criticize Lukács? An important part of the reason is obviously his dissatisfaction with the fact that Lukács, at least for the time being, admits of the legitimacy of an "undialectical" natural science as a tool for studying nature. Another part of the reason is probably that Lukács never really clarifies what he means by the objective dialectics operating in nature. Foster, by contrast, puts considerable effort into developing the idea of such a dialectics and on the basis of that tries to assert a "unity of method" for both society and nature.

In Lukács's "Defense", however, we find a series of objections to precisely the kind of project Foster seems to engage in. As we have seen, Lukács ultimately asserts the primacy of subject-object dialectics as the basis for studying both society and nature. Foster, by contrast, is only partially relying on a subject-object dialectics (e.g. when he argues that capitalism creates a metabolic rift in the relation to nature). In the main, his project is to develop a "subjectless" dialectics operating in nature itself inspired by Epicurus' atomistics and Darwin's theory of evolution.

Foster's problem is that to the extent that he emphasizes the former type of dialectics, his position not all that different from Lukács and Western Marxism and his harsh criticism of them therefore seems unfair. To the extent, however, that he instead emphasizes the latter type of dialectics, he ends up in a position where he will be vulnerable to Lukács's criticism. Firstly, his attempt to sketch a dialectics of nature on the model of Epicurus or Darwin seems to overlook that nature is a social category. Secondly, since this type of dialectics neglects the element of praxis, he seems vulnerable to the criticism that it will be merely contemplative and therefore easily reabsorbed in bourgeois research. Thirdly, such an objectivistic dialectics of nature would have to compete with the existing natural sciences. Its aim seems to be to do precisely what Lukács says is impossible: namely to anticipate the transformed natural science of the future and, on that basis, replace the existing natural sciences. The only alternative to actually competing with them would be to argue that natural science itself has already developed in a way that has made it less positivistic and more dialectical. To some extent, this is precisely what Foster is trying to argue by referring to Darwin and to contemporary biologists (such as Levins, Levontin and Gould) who are sympathetic to Engels's idea of a materialist dialectics. Against this, however, one might object that the overwhelming majority of scientific studies are still more positivistic than dialectical.

If Lukács's arguments hold, Foster is in a fix. Either he has to adopt a subject-object dialectics similar to the Western Marxists he set out to criticize, or else he has to mimick the natural sciences and compete with them on their terms by developing an objectivistic dialectics of nature. I don't really wish to evaluate here to what extent Lukács's claims can be upheld. It should be clear, however, that he is far from defenseless against the kind of criticism that Foster has directed against him. His position may be difficult to defend, but so is Foster's.


Feenberg, Andrew (2014) The Philosophy of Praxis: Marx, Lukács and the Frankfurt School, London: Verso.

Jay, Martin (1984) Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukács to Habermas, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lukács, Georg (1971a) “Preface to the new edition (1967)”, pp ix – xivii, in History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, London: Merlin Press.

Lukács, Georg (1971b) History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, London: Merlin Press.

Lukács, Georg (2000) A Defence of History and Class Consciousness: Tailism and the Dialectic, London: Verso.

Vogel, Steven (1996) Against Nature: The Concept of Nature in Critical Theory, Albany: State University of New York Press.

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