The “New” Lukács

The reception of Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness has always been fraught, even frankly hostile. The early attacks among Marxists in the Soviet Union and Hungary provoked Lukács to write a clarifying “Defense” of his book, but he did not publish it and it has only recently been available. Those early attacks were effective: History and Class Consciousness practically disappeared after 1923, to be republished in Germany, with Lukács’s permission, in 1967. It was available earlier, in 1960, in French translation, which is how I first read it. I studied the book in Lucien Goldmann’s class in Paris, along with Michael Löwy. We both wrote books about Lukács, in the late ‘70s and early ’80s, attempting to find a new path for Marxism in his work, but our voice was drowned out, at least in the English speaking world, by a chorus of attacks on History and Class Consciousness.[1] The doxa of the time was entirely negative. His concept of totality was Hegelian, rather than Marxist, his theory of class consciousness led directly to a proto-Stalinist concept of the party, he either viewed nature as a mere construction or on the contrary cleaved history from nature as though they could be separated. And so on… Lukács himself piled on, attacking his own early book in the preface to the new edition.

The one heritage of History and Class Consciousness that survived the attacks was the concept of reification, the transformation of social relations and their associated objects into isolated, measurable things, precisely what commodification accomplishes when the products of labor are exchanged, not between workers and consumers, but as goods exchanged for money. This concept reappeared, usually without citation, in the works of the Frankfurt School. It is important for Adorno, and Axel Honneth has written a book specifically on reification in an attempt to update the concept. In the 1960s reification inspired the dystopian arguments of the Frankfurt School that culminated in Marcuse’s concept of one-dimensionality. Paradoxically, these arguments resonated with young people whose protests had a huge impact on society. 

My book on Lukács came out in 1981. It had no influence on the major players in Critical Theory who by this time were fascinated by Habermas’s approach, while in England Althusser held sway among Marxists. In contrast with the usual view of reification as an ideology, I proposed to treat it as a cultural phenomenon, patterning not only thought but also the material culture of the society. This was my interpretation of Lukács’s concept of the “form of objectivity,” an essential category of the book that was lost in the English translation.

This alternative interpretation came naturally to me as a student of Marcuse, with his rather similar concept of one-dimensionality. Marcuse argued that one-dimensionality went beyond ideology to penetrate the technology of capitalism.[2] A careful reading of Lukács’s text showed something similar. 

In 2014 I returned to my book on Lukács and revised it quite drastically on the basis of a much deeper understanding of Lukács’s philosophical background in German neo-Kantianism and phenomenology. This new version appeared at a time when a number of younger scholars were beginning to question the standard interpretations of Lukács. 

Three remarkable books should completely revised our understanding of History and Class Consciousness in the English speaking worldI refer to Georg Lukács’s Philosophy of Praxis: From Neo-Kantianism to Marxism, by Konstantinos Kavoulakos, Lukács’s Phenomenology of Capitalism, by Richard Westerman, and Lukács: Praxis and the Absolute by Daniel Andrés López. These books all borrow from my earlier study and pursue it further in terms of neo-Kantian, phenomenological and Hegelian influences on Lukács. I recommend these books as an antidote to much of the earlier scholarship, which all too often was ignorant of Lukács’s intellectual context.

Unfortunately, the English translation of History and Class Consciousness has made it more difficult than it should be to understand that context. For example, consider this version of one of the key sentences in the whole book. After asserting that the commodity is the central structural issue in understanding every aspect of capitalist society, Lukács adds: “Only in this case can the structure of commodity-relations be made to yield a model of all the objective forms of bourgeois society together with all the subjective forms corresponding to them”.[3]

The sentence seems to make sense but what is an “objective form”? Unless we can understand this concept it is not clear what Lukács is trying to say. In fact the German original does make it clear. In place of the translator’s “objective forms,” we find the neo-Kantian term “Gegenständlichkeitsformen,” “forms of objectivity”. This term refers to a particular way of being an object, a particular type of what we might call “thinghood.” In the contemporary German context, such ways are multiple. The natural sciences address things of a certain type, quite different from the objects of artistic production, and so on. Many types of objects exist, each of them a coherent cross section of the infinite complexity of experience. In the sentence I have highlighted Lukács is saying that the commodity exemplifies a particular way of being an object that characterizes all objects in bourgeois society and shapes the subjective response to those objects. 

The form of objectivity is characterized in the first part of Lukács’s essay on reification. The objects of bourgeois society come to resemble the objects of the natural sciences in terms of quantification and lawfulness. Since the natural sciences are the paradigm case of rationality in this society, the imposition of its forms amounts to the rationalization of society. Rational forms resembling those successfully imposed on nature through experimentation, research and technology have become social forms. In sum, capitalism strives to create a “second nature,” built out of the materials of the social world, including the human beings who inhabit that world and the artifacts and organizations they live with. This explains why the philosophical debates over the nature and limits of scientific-technical rationality, which begin in the 17th century and continue through Kant down to the present, turn out to be relevant to social theory.

This surprising connection becomes visible toward the end of the 19th century as the industrialization process reaches a climax. By the early 1920s it was clear that the effects of industrialism went well beyond the expansion of the market into ever more aspects of social life. Apparent to Lukács as to many of his contemporaries was the parallel growth of mechanization and bureaucracy. Together with markets, these new techniques of production and organization amounted to the total submission of society to technical rationality. Reification had become the universal meaning of social objects.

German philosophers struggled to save a remnant of culture from the aggressive advance of business and technology. The neo-Kantians distinguished “meaning” from factual existence in order to better understand the differences between science, art and history. They introduced the notion that different types of objects reflect specific domains of meaning, i.e. “forms of objectivity.” In this way they attempted to escape the grip of a scientism that reflects the totalization of capitalist industrialism. But the gap between meaning and existence shows up in a problem that already worried Kant: the unknowable thing-in-itself. If we know objects exclusively through their meanings, their sheer existence, independent of those meanings, escapes our knowledge. What is the social significance of this obscure philosophical conundrum?

Lukács argued that reified forms are instantiated in contents of some sort. The commodity form corresponds to meaning in the neo-Kantian construction, while the contents correspond to use and the concrete act of labor. What is the relation between those forms and their contents? Can the meanings fully determine the content or is there a remainder that escapes from any formal structuring? The Kantian problematic of the tension between form and content, meaning and the thing-in-itself, appeared now in the relation of technical rationality to the human beings whose lives it shapes. Where neo-Kantianism had found a theoretical limit, Lukács identified a practical one: resistance to the imposition of capitalist forms, class struggle.

You may ask what these philosophical reflections add to the usual accounts of class struggle based on the exploitation of the proletariat. In fact, Lukács’s argument brought Marxism into the 20th century. Previously, Marxist had denounced the irrationality of capitalism, but it was no longer possible to believe this without a significant concession. On the contrary, capitalism had been rationalized to the point where rationality itself appeared as a problem. Of course, at the macro level capitalism still produced crises, and so could be said to be irrational, but the organization of all social institutions around rational methods imitated from scientific reason required a new approach. 

This would have consequences for the idea of socialism Marxists failed to heed. Engels, for example, believed the separation of management from ownership and the creation of national trusts already anticipated the planned society, although still under the exploitative control of capital. Such notions proved naïve in the light of the rationalization of capitalist society, and overshadowed more democratic notions of socialism which might have had more legitimacy and staying power than the bureaucratic Soviet system. 

Lukács did not anticipated all this in 1923. His ideas on revolution were primarily influenced by the early success in Russia. He could not imagine the catastrophic effects of the Soviet version of rationalization which was even more indifferent to its “contents,” namely the lives it structured, than the capitalist version. Nevertheless there are occasional indications in his writings in this period that suggest the relevance of his theory of reification to the organization of socialist society. These indications are connected to his lingering loyalty to Rosa Luxemburg’s theory of mass action and the idea of workers’ councils. 

Lukács understood that there can be no escape from some sort of rationalization in a modern society. What is required is a way of bringing the “contents” into relation with the reified form so as to favor human life rather than capital. There is one passage in History and Class Consciousness that hints at this alternative. Lukács writes, “the world which confronts man in theory and in practice exhibits a kind of objectivity which–if properly thought out and understood — need never stick fast in an immediacy similar to that of forms found earlier on. This objectivity must accordingly be comprehensible as a constant factor mediating between past and future and it must be possible to demonstrate that it is everywhere the product of man and of the development of society.”[4] Here Lukács seems to imagine an alternative “form of objectivity” compatible with socialist democracy.

While Lukács did not develop the implications of this passage, his critique of what came to be called “instrumental reason” or “technological rationality” inspired the Frankfurt School and contributed to the response of the new left to the technocratic tendency of advanced capitalism. Alienation from rationalized systems, reification, underlay revolts that took many forms. Attempts to spread this new form of resistance to the traditional working class had some success at the time. Stanley Aronowitz wrote False Promises to document these Lukácsian revolts against the reification of the proletariat.[5]

Once we understand Lukács in these terms, where can we go both theoretically and practically? We must heed the “contents” of the reified forms. Those contents manifest themselves in progressive social movements that resist the rationality of the established system in the name of alternative forms of rationality. I have focused on the technical politics that has arisen out of the ashes of the new left. There have been movements in medicine, urban affairs, communication and the environment that aim directly at “mediating” between technical rationalization and human and natural needs.[6] Other movements need to be studied in terms of the logic of reification and dereification. This is the living legacy of Lukács’ famous book.

This article is based on a talk presented at the 15th Annual Platypus International Convention: History and Class Consciousness.

Andrew Feenberg holds the Canada Research Chair in the Philosophy of Technology at Simon Fraser University. His most recent book is The Ruthless Critique of Everything Existing: Nature and Revolution in Marcuse’s Philosophy of Praxis.

[1] See Andrew Feenberg, Lukács, Marx and the Sources of Critical Theory (Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1981), revised as The Philosophy of Praxis: Marx, Lukács and the Frankfurt School, Verso Press, 2014; Michael Löwy, Pour une sociologie des intellectuals révolutionaire (Paris, PUF, 1976); Michael Löwy, Georg Lukács: from Romanticism to Bolchevism (London, Verso, 1981.) For a typical example of the critique, see Gareth Stedman Jones, “The Marxism of the Early Lukács: An Evaluation,” in New Left Review, no. 70 (1971).

[2] For my interpretation of Marcuse’s thought, see The Ruthless Critique of Everything Existing: Nature and Revolution in Marcuse’s Philosophy of Praxis (London: Verso, 2023).

[3] Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, trans. R. Livingstone (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1971), 83.

[4] Ibid., 159.

[5] Stanley Aronowitz, False Promises (New York: McGraw Hill, 1973).

[6] See Andrew Feenberg, Technosystem: The Social Life of Reason (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017).


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Zillah Eisenstein: Newest Misogyny/Ies

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By Firoze Manji: Amílcar Cabral And The Politics Of Culture And Identity

By Andrew Feenberg: The “New” Lukács

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By Aidan J. Beatty: Jo Guidi, The Long Land War: The Global Struggle for Occupancy Rights (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022)

By Sarah Kamal: Eben Kirksey, The Mutant Project: Inside the Global Race to Genetically Modify Humans Bristol: Bristol University Press, 2021.