Kettles boil, classes struggle

Terry Eagleton

  • A Defence of ‘History and Class Consciousness’: Tailism and the Dialectic by Georg Lukács, translated by Esther Leslie
    Verso, 182 pp, £10.00, June 2002, ISBN 1 85984 370 0

Changing the world involves a curious kind of doublethink. If we are to act effectively, the mind must buckle itself austerely to the actual, in the belief that knowing the situation for what it is is the source of all moral and political wisdom. The only trouble is that such knowledge is also desperately hard to come by, and perhaps unattainable in any complete sense. The difficulty is not so much the solutions themselves, but grasping the way it is with a particular bit of the world. If you get this right, it will intimate the kinds of solution you should look to. Answers are not the hardest thing.

The problem is not only that there are many competing versions of how it is with the world, including the Postmodern belief that it is no way in particular; it is also that to bow our minds submissively to the actual requires a humility and self-effacement which the clamorous ego finds hard to stomach. It is an unglamorous business, distasteful to the fantasising, chronically self-deceiving human mind. Seeing things for what they are is, in the end, possible only for the virtuous.

There would be no point demanding an end to capitalism if the system had been wound up several decades ago and we had simply failed to notice. In this broad sense, all prescriptions about what should be done imply descriptions of what is actually the case. Values must be linked to facts.

But at the very moment the mind is required to be chaste and self-forgetful, it is also asked to spurn the actual in the name of the possible. It must combine the indicative mood with the subjunctive, yoking a coldly demystified sense of the present to a warmly imaginative leap beyond it. The flights of fantasy which get in the way of seeing the situation straight are vital to imagining an alternative to it. If the romantic conforms the world to his desire, and the realist conforms his mind to the world, the revolutionary is called on to do both at once.

In this sense, radical politics demand a strangely hybrid human being, one who is both more sceptical and more trustful than the average. Such characters are more gloomy in their view of the past and present than most conservatives, but also more open to a transformed future than most liberal reformists. The bad news is that because what is awry with the present is a structural affair, it runs far deeper than individual folly or knavery; but for the same reason it can in principle be changed, which is the good news. It is when radicals are decried as Jeremiahs by liberals and as starry-eyed utopianists by conservatives that they know they have got it more or less right.

This duality crops up in Marxist theory as a contention over how much power should be assigned to the subject and how much to the object. But since ‘subject’ here means the revolutionary masses, and ‘object’ something like history or class-society, the epistemological is also the political. How far is change up to us, and how far is it constrained by objective conditions? Pushed too far, the former keels over into voluntarism, and the latter into determinism. The combination of these two heresies is the preserve of middle-class society, which believes politically speaking in self-determination, and economically speaking that the individual is merely a pawn in the marketplace. The voluntaristic doctrines of capitalism – the sky’s the limit, never say never, you can crack it if you try – are a convenient screen for the ‘truth’ of its determinism: the fact that the human subject is shunted around by random economic forces. But they also reflect a genuine belief in democracy, hard though that is to reconcile with economic anarchy.

What, then, of the Marxist version of this problem? Marx himself tended to speak of practical human subjects in his youth and objective, law-like processes in his middle age. Some of his disciples claimed that these were just different ways of talking about the same thing, whereas others, not least humanist or Hegelian Marxists like Sartre, regarded talk of law-like processes as itself a form of alienation. For the early Gramsci, Marx had immatured with age, and Capital was to be discarded. For Althusser, however, Marx’s youthful talk about living human subjects was simply a regrettable Hegelian hangover, and the ‘mature’ Marx was the genuine scientific article.

For some bourgeois apologists of Marx’s own day, the essence of human subjecthood was freedom, whereas the objective historical process was governed by inexorable laws. Some Marxists had problems with the first bit of this, since it smacked of laissez-faire; but it was hard to reject freedom out of hand and still clamour for social change. Marx himself sometimes sounds as though he is a determinist, and sometimes not. The Marxism of the Second International was robustly deterministic, which left the subject rather at a loose end. If socialism was predestined by the laws of history, what exactly was the point of men and women trying to bring it about? Why struggle for what will happen anyway? And why should one suppose that the inevitable is also desirable? The reverse is usually the case. Marxist philosophers such as Kautsky and Plekhanov didn’t have a very cogent answer to this latter question; though some of their colleagues, aware that a positivist form of Marxism could yield no ethical criteria to establish why socialism was worth embracing in the first place, laced this sterile historicism with a dash of Kantian ethics.

The apparent superfluity of the human subject, however, could be dealt with after a fashion. Socialism was indeed inevitable, but so, too, was working-class insurrection. The proletariat was bound to rise up and overturn the system once it found its condition sufficiently intolerable, and once it had attained consciousness of its allotted historical role. In its wily way, historical determinism had already factored in the free behaviour of human agents, just as divine providence does not dispense with our free decisions but works in and through them. My freedom is not an embarrassing oversight in God’s plan for the world, since it is God who lies at the source of that freedom, and who has factored in my freely chosen actions. God did not force me to dress up as a parlourmaid and call myself Milly last Friday; but being omniscient, he knew that I would, and could thus shape his cosmic schemes with last Friday’s Milly business well in mind. There is no stopping the Kingdom of God from coming, but only because the efforts of Christians to bring it about are equally preordained. The notion of divine providence thus deconstructs the opposition between subject and object, liberty and necessity. In the modern era, it takes the form of the Hegelian Absolute.

Even so, all this scarcely left the subject centre-stage. What changed everything was the Bolshevik Revolution. That cataclysm was the ruin of the Tsar, but also threatened the ruin of the mechanistic materialism for which the human subject was a mere symptom of the historical process. The establishment of the first workers’ state reminded the Marxist theory which helped give it birth of what it had almost forgotten: that it is men and women, not History, who write the human narrative. In eras of revolution, Marxist theory tends to turn with fresh vigour to questions of consciousness; but this is also true in periods of reaction, when political questions that have grown intractable can be displaced by matters of culture and philosophy (this tendency is evident in much Western Marxism). The problem is how to give voice to the importance of the subject without giving comfort to bourgeois idealists, who are fond of hearing that injustices can be put right with a bit more willpower, and that a change of heart is always more deep-seated than a mere change in property relations.

What the Bolshevik Revolution revealed was that Marxist theory had lagged behind socialist practice – not exactly the most pressing of problems for current Left politics. Today’s Left, bereft of the political opportunities of Lenin or Lukács, is accustomed to limping behind theory, or even to being replaced by it. Once radical protest was flushed off the streets of Paris in 1968, ‘discourse’ or the floating signifier could keep it warm. It is not unknown for followers of Michel Foucault to celebrate the anarchic force of madness while voting Liberal Democrat. You can back Tony Blair and Pierre Bourdieu with equal enthusiasm. In the era of Bolshevism, by contrast, theory had at times to hobble hard to keep abreast of what was happening on the streets. The Petersburg Soviet tore up and rewrote Marxist theories of political power, while the Bolshevik uprising struck hard at the kind of Marxism for which human agency was an agreeable bonus.

Philosophically speaking, Lenin championed a quaint epistemology in which ideas are copies or reflections of real objects. Politically speaking, however, this largely passive model of the mind hardly answered to what had broken out in the farms and factories of Russia. Leninist practice had outstripped the theory. To account for what had happened, it was necessary to swap one bourgeois philosopher for another, to reach back to Hegel rather than Kant, and retrieve an idea of consciousness as active intervention rather than accurate picturing. There was need for a Hegelian recasting of Marxism, which would rewrite history in retrospect and supply Bolshevism, after the event, with its missing epistemology. The World Spirit summoned Georg Lukács to accomplish the task.

Lukács did so most resourcefully in History and Class Consciousness (1923), the chief intellectual monument of Western Marxism. No other work of Marxist philosophy has proved so richly influential. Among other things, the book reinvents the young Marx’s theory of alienation, at a time when his writings on the subject were still unknown. It is alienation which leads us to forget that the object has its source in the labour of the subject. The history of modern Western epistemology begins to look different once you see that its innocent ‘object’ is in fact a reified commodity. It is only then, in Lukács’s view, that we can see why Kant is forced to posit a mysterious individual freedom on the one hand and an impenetrable, law-bound object on the other. What will bridge the gap between them is the dialectic. History and subjectivity, Lukács insisted, were simply different poles of a single dialectical process. In the shape of working-class consciousness, the mind was a transformative force within reality, not an obedient reflection of it. Objectivity was not to be achieved by the disinterested contemplation typical of ‘bourgeois’ natural science: rather, truth was a product of the interaction of mind and world, not of the banishment of the subject from the object so that it might view it more accurately. According to that perverse notion, the subject can know the object best by disappearing altogether from the scene of inquiry. For Lukács, by contrast, truth is achieved by the working class becoming aware of itself as the universal subject of history. A universal subjectivity is effectively identical with objectivity. You can thus hope to historicise truth while avoiding relativism. For Hegel, the truth of history is the World Spirit becoming conscious of itself; for Lukács, it is the self-knowledge of the working class. The zeitgeist has become incarnate in the wretched of the earth.

Lukács recognised, in short, that there is a category which mediates between subject and object, namely self-knowledge. In the act of knowing myself, I become subject and object simultaneously. This peculiar sort of knowledge also dismantles the dichotomy between thought and action, or fact and value – for to know myself is to alter myself in that very act, and to grasp the truth of my condition is to know what I would need in order to be free. Is this to claim, then, that Marxist theory is no more than the historical self-understanding of the working class, as Hegel’s Absolute is no more than history brooding on itself? If so, what has become of Lenin’s insistence that such theory must be brought to the working class from outside, or of the role of revolutionary leadership?

Well received at first, Lukács’s great work soon ran into trouble with the custodians of Marxist orthodoxy. ‘If we get a few more of these professors spinning their theories,’ Zinoviev shouted at a Communist Party Congress, ‘we shall be lost.’ Lukács himself later disowned the book. Indeed, recantation came as easily to this accomplished groveller as optimism did to Trotsky. What nobody knew, however, is that Lukács had written a response to the virulent criticisms of his work, which turned up recently in the Soviet Communist Party archives and is published here for the first time.

Lukács’s main aim in this passionate polemic (he accuses one critic of ‘fatalistic tailism’, a grave, potentially infectious disorder) is to establish his credentials as a sound Bolshevik. Indeed, he had excellent reasons for doing so, given that the Hungarian Workers’ Republic of 1919, in which he had been a political commissar, was routed partly because of its disastrously feeble leadership. Like Paradise Lost, Ulysses and a good many other distinguished pieces of writing, History and Class Consciousness was the fruit of a botched revolution. Lukács did not regard his historicist theory of knowledge as incompatible with a notion of theory as having to be implanted by an avant-garde. The workers may come to see that they are exploited, but they will hardly come to grasp the finer details of surplus value or the Asiatic mode of production merely by feeling hard done by. Mechanical materialism must be resisted: insurrection is an art, a semi-intuitive seizing of the moment, not a drearily predictable development. Here, at least, the subjective moment has decisive predominance.

The determinist Marxism that Lukács is out to worst is particularly keen on the so-called dialectics of Nature, a piece of metaphysical materialism hatched by Engels out of 19th-century Positivism. The doctrine was crudely (though non-satirically) summarised in the words of a Marxist worker of my acquaintance: ‘Kettles boil, dogs’ tails wag and classes struggle.’ Lukács tips his hat to this piece of reductionism, but is much more enthused by the idea that our knowledge of Nature is always socially mediated.

This is one of several issues which divide John Rees, who has written an erudite, illuminating introduction to this book, and Slavoj Žižek, who has provided a characteristically provocative ‘postface’ for it. Roughly speaking, Rees seeks rather stiffly to reclaim Lukács for a certain Marxist orthodoxy, whereas the more imaginative Žižek ends up making him sound more like an existentialist than a materialist. His Lukács is an exotic mixture of Jacques Lacan and Alain Badiou, a thinker who breaks with evolutionism for the ‘radical contingency’ of the revolutionary act. If Rees risks taking the novelty out of Lukács, Žižek makes him sound more like an avant-garde Parisian than a Hungarian Communist.

Rees is anxious to co-opt Lukács for dialectical materialism, and claims him as an orthodox Leninist without probing too deeply into the tension between historicist and vanguardist theories of consciousness. He seems to approve of the fact that Lukács brutally consigned his own valuable pre-Marxist writings to the ash-can of history, whereas the truth is that Western Marxism would have been woefully impoverished without its non-Marxist philosophical resources. Rees is also a zealous advocate of Lukács’s belief that false consciousness is ultimately rooted in the reified, fetishistic nature of capitalist society. This, the conceptual keystone of History and Class Consciousness, is indeed a powerful case; but Rees fails to see that it is a reductionist one, too. There are all kinds of ideological forms which have precious little to do with reification, not least those which aren’t concerned with social class. Rees himself falls prey to reification when he speaks of ‘the dialectic’, but not particularly because he is a victim of the fetishism of commodities.

The tragic irony of Lukács’s career is that he himself moved from being a revolutionary subject to becoming, as a stalwart of Stalinism, the symptom of a determined historical process. His personal trajectory was in this sense true to Marx’s intellectual one. Born in Budapest in 1885, the son of a leading Hungarian financier, and of a mother from one of the oldest and wealthiest Jewish families in Eastern Europe, Lukács hardly seemed cut out for a Communist career. His early philosophical preoccupations, cast in a sombre, pessimistic mould, were ethical and idealist, and his politics a form of romantic anti-capitalism. Works such as Soul and Form (1911) and Theory of the Novel (1916) reflect an abstract, utopian rejection of bourgeois civilisation, influenced by a curious blend of Hegel, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Georg Simmel and Max Weber.

It was the Bolshevik Revolution that turned Lukács gradually from tragic metaphysics to historical materialism; and it was the collapse of the Hungarian ancien régime in 1918 which thrust him into the arms of the Hungarian Communist Party of Béla Kún. The young Kierkegaardian philosopher was political commissar for education and culture in Hungary’s ill-fated Soviet Republic of 1919, throwing open theatres to the workers and launching a controversial sex education campaign which introduced children to the idea of free love and denounced their monogamous parents. Communism would resolve the tragic antitheses of essence and existence, fact and value, subjective and objective, individual and totality, which had haunted his earlier speculations.

The harmonious totality of social powers which the young Lukács had discovered in the world of classical antiquity was now given a change of tense and shifted to the socialist future. Marxism was the consummation of the great bourgeois humanist heritage. The later Lukács was accordingly in favour with the Comintern whenever it was bent on a political alliance with the bourgeois West, as in the Popular Front period, and out of favour whenever it lurched away from détente (the pre-Second World War era in which social democracy was denounced as ‘social fascism’, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the height of the Cold War). It was less a matter of Lukács zigzagging to adapt to Soviet policy, than of Soviet policy zigzagging around him.

In one sense, the Lukács of the Hungarian revolution had simply translated into material terms a metaphysical conflict between authentic spiritual value and the corruptions of temporal existence. The former now staged an appearance as the revolutionary proletariat, while the latter took on the guise of bourgeois society. Still absolutist in his habits of thought, Lukács the neophytic Marxist preached that no compromise between the two was tolerable, and had accordingly to be rebuked by Lenin for infantile ultra-leftism. He was to change his political tune not long after Lenin’s death, championing the Stalinist doctrine of ‘socialism in one country’ and launching some high-minded assaults on the revolutionary cultural avant-garde in the name of a more classical Marxist aesthetics. Having failed to bend reality to his desire, either in philosophical speculation or revolutionary practice, he settled stoically for trimming his desire to a harsh Soviet reality.

Yet Lukács’s loyalty to classical culture, not least to the great bourgeois humanist heritage, was also a silent critique of Stalinist philistinism. Totality, having shifted from the ancient past to the socialist future, now took up home in the realist novel, banished there by the failure of revolutionary hopes. Utopia, glimpsed fitfully in Dostoevsky, had flared briefly in insurrectionary Hungary only to be snuffed out in the tragic decline of socialism into state oppression. It was now to be rediscovered in the mighty lineage of European literary realism from Balzac and Scott to Tolstoy and Thomas Mann. It was in Waverley and Le Rouge et le noir, not in the World Spirit or the workers’ republic, that individual particular and organic whole, sense and reason, the actual and the ideal, could be reconciled. Indeed, realism was simply a name for authentic art, a standard against which the whole decadent Modernist enterprise from Flaubert to Brecht was to be measured and found lacking. If it could imply a patrician contempt for images of brawny Soviet ploughmen, it was also a way of rubbishing almost everything from Zola to Joyce.

It was thus as a literary critic that Lukács became a name to conjure with in the West – one of a venerable lineage of Western Marxist thinkers whose preoccupation with culture and philosophy seemed to soften the edges of a historical materialism which was otherwise rather raw and angular for Western taste. It is ironic, then, that as this book reminds us, Lukács’s ‘turn to the subject’ was not away from bloody revolution, but a decisive move towards it.