Lukacs’ Marxism of Revolutionary Subjectivity

For many years scholars and readers wondered why Lukacs never answered to the intense fire of criticism directed against History and Class Consciousness (HCC) soon after its publication, particularly from Communist quarters. The recent discovery of Chvostismus und Dialektik in the former archives of the Lenin Institute shows that this “missing link” existed : Lukacs did reply, in a most explicit and vigorous way, to these attacks, and defended the main ideas of his hegelo-marxist masterpiece from 1923. One may consider this answer as the last revolutionary/marxist writing of the Hungarian philosopher, just before a major turn in his theoretical and political orientation.

Laszlo Illés, the Hungarian editor of Tailism and the dialectic (T&D) in 1996, believes that it was written in 1925 or 1926 “at the same time as the significant reviews of the Lassalle-Edition and Moses Hess writings”. I think that 1925 is a more accurate guess, because there is no reason why Lukacs would wait two years to answer criticisms published in 1924 - the style of the document suggests rather an immediate response. But, above all, I don’t believe that it is contemporaneous with the article on Moses Hess (1926), for the good reason that this piece is, as I’ll try to show later on, strictly opposed, in its basic philosophic orientation, to the newly discovered essay.

Now that we know that Lukacs found it necessary to defend History and Class Consciousness against his “orthodox” Communist critics - he never bothered to answer the Social-Democratic ones – the obvious question, curiously not raised by the editors (both of the Hungarian and the English edition) is why did he not publish it ? I can see three possible answers to this question :

1) Lukacs was afraid that his response could provoke a reaction from Soviet or Comintern bodies, thus aggravating his political isolation. I don’t think this is a plausible explanation, not only because in 1925 — unlike 1935 — there was still room for discussion in the Communist movement, but above all considering that in 1925 he published a severe criticism of Bukharin’s “Marxist sociology”, which has many points in common with Tailism and the dialectic. [1] Of course, Bukharin was a much more important figure in the Communist movement than Rudas or Deborin, and still Lukacs was not afraid of submitting him to an intense critical fire.

2) Lukacs tried unsucessfully to publish it but failed. One possible hypothesis is that he sent it to a Soviet publication - for instance Pod Znamenem Marxisma (Under the Banner of Marxism), where Deborin had published an attack on him in 1924 – but the essay was refused, the editors being rather on the side of Deborin. This would explain why the manuscript was found in Moscow, and also – perhaps – why Lukacs used the Russian word Chvostismus, known only to Russian readers. It may also be that the essay was too long to be published in a review, and too short and polemical to appear as a book.

3) Some time after the essay was written - a few months, or perhaps a year – Lukacs began to have doubts, and finally changed his mind and did not agree anymore with its politico/philosophical orientation. This hypothesis, by the way, is not necessarily contradictory with the former one.

As for Lukacs’ silence on this document during the following years, it can easily be explained by his rejection - particularly after the 30’s – of HCC as an “idealist” and even “dangerous” book.

Tailism and the dialectic is, as its title suggests, an essay in defence of revolutionary dialectics, against people like Lazlo Rudas – a young Hungarian communist intellectual - and Abram Deborin – a former Menchevik and follower of Plekhanov - that represented, inside the Communist movement, an influential and powerful semi-positivist and pre-dialectical standpoint. [2] In spite of its outstanding value in this respect , the document has, in my view, some serious shortcomings.

The most obvious is that it is a polemic against second-rate authors. In itself, this is not a significant issue : did not Marx discuss at length the writings of Bruno and Edgard Bauer? However, Lukacs did, to a certain extent, adopt the agenda of his critics, and limited his answer to the problems they raised : class consciousness and the dialectics of nature. While the first is certainly an essential issue in revolutionary dialectics, the same can hardly be said of the second. It is difficult to perceive the philosophical/political significance of the many pages of T&D devoted to the epistemology of natural sciences, or to the question if experiment and industry are, in themselves – as Engels seemed to believe – a sufficient philosophical answer to the challenge of the Kantian thing-in-itself. Another consequence of this limited agenda is that the theory of reification, which is one of the central arguments of HCC and Lukacs’ most important contribution to a radical critique of capitalist civilization – a theory which was to exert a powerful influence on Western Marxism throughout the XXth century, from the Frankfurt School and Walter Benjamin to Lucien Goldmann, Henri Lefebvre and Guy Debord – is entirely absent from Tailism and the dialectic, as it was from the laborious polemical exertions of Rudas and Deborin.

In relation to class consciousness and the Leninist theory of the party – certainly the most interesting part of the essay – there is a problem of a different sort. If one compares the discussion of these issues in HCC with those of T&D, one cannot avoid the impression that his interpretation of Leninism in the last piece gained a distinct authoritarian slant. While in the opus from 1923 there is an original attempt to integrate some of Rosa Luxemburg insights in a sort of synthesis between Luxemburgism and Leninism [3], in the polemical essay Luxemburg appears only, in a rather simplistic way, as a negative reference and as the embodiment of pure spontaneism. While in HCC the relationship between the “imputed consciousness” and the empirical one is perceived as a dialectical process in which the class, assisted by its vanguard, rises to the zugerechnetes Bewusstsein through its own experience of struggle, in T&D the Kautskyan strictly un-dialectical thesis that socialism is “introduced from outside” into the class by the intellectuals – a mechanistic view taken up by Lenin in What is to be done ? (1902) but discarded after 1905 – is presented as the quintessence of “Leninism”. While in HCC Lukacs insisted that “the workers councils are the political/economical overcoming of reification” [4], T&D ignores the soviets and refers only to the party, going as far as identifying the dictatorship of the proletariat with the “dictatorship of a real Communist Party”.

Inspite of these problems, Chvostismus und Dialektik has little in common with Stalinism, and may be considered as a powerful exercise in revolutionary dialectics, against the crypto-positivist brand of “Marxism” that was soon to become the official ideology of the Soviet bureaucracy. The key element in this polemical battle is Lukacs’ emphasis on the decisive revolutionary importance of the subjective moment in the subject/object historical dialectics. If one had to summarize the value and the significance of Tailism and the dalectics, I would argue that it is a powerful hegelian/marxist apology of revolutionary subjectivity. This motive runs like a red thread throughout the whole piece, particularly in its first part, but even, to some extent, in the second one too. Let us try to bring into evidence the main moments of this argument.

One could begin with the mysterious term Chvostismus of the book’s title - Lukacs never bothered to explain it, supposing that its - German? Russian? - readers were familiar with it. The word was used by Lenin in his polemics – for instance in What is to be done? - against those “economistic Marxists” who “tail-end” the spontaneous labour movement. Lukacs, however, uses it in a much broader historiosophical sense : Chvostismus means passively following - “tailing” - the “objective” course of events, while ignoring the subjective/revolutionary moments of the historical process.

Lukacs denounces the attempt by Rudas and Deborin to transform Marxism into a “science” in the positivist, bourgeois sense. Deborin – an ex-Menchevik – tries, in a regressive move, to bring back historical materialism “into the fold of Comte or Herbert Spencer” (auf Comte oder Herbert Spencer zurückrevidiert), a sort of bourgeois sociology studying transhistorical laws that exclude all human activity. And Rudas places himself as a “scientific” observer of the objective, law-bound course of history, whereby he can “anticipate” revolutionary developments. Both regard as worthy of scientific investigation only what is free of any participation on the part of the historical subject, and both reject, in the name of this “Marxist” (in fact, positivist) science any attempt to accord “an active and positive role to a subjective moment in history”. [5]

The war against subjectivism, argues Lukacs, is the banner under which opportunism justifies its rejection of revolutionary dialectics : it was used by Bernstein against Marx and by Kautsky against Lenin. In the name of anti-subjectivism, Rudas develops a fatalist conception of history, which includes only “the objective conditions”, but leaves no room for the decision of the historical agents. In an article in Inprekor against Trotsky – criticised by Lukacs in T&D - Rudas claims that the defeat of the Hungarian revolution of 1919 was due only to “objective conditions” and not to any mistakes of the Communist leadership; he mentions both Trotsky and Lukacs as exemples of a one-sided conception of politics which overemphasizes the importance of proletarian class consciousness. [6]

While rejecting the accusation of “subjective idealism”, Lukacs does not retract from his subjective and voluntarist viewpoint : in the decisive moments of the struggle “everything depends on class consciousness , on the conscious will of the proletariat” – the sujective component. Of course, there is a dialectical interaction between subject and object in the historical process, but in the Augenblick of crisis, it gives the direction of the events, in the form of revolutionary consciousness and praxis. By his fatalist attitude, Rudas ignores praxis and develops a theory of passive “tail-ending”, considering that history is a process that “takes place independently of human consciousness”.

What is Leninism, argues Lukacs, if not the permanent insistence on the “active and conscious rôle of the subjective moment” ? How could one imagine, “without this function of the subjective moment”, Lenin’s conception of insurrection as an art? Insurrection is precisely the Augenblick, the instant of the revolutionary process where “the subjective moment has a decisive predominance (ein entscheidendes Übergewicht)”. In that instant, the fate of the revolution, and therefore of humanity “depends on the subjective moment”. This does not mean that revolutionaries should “wait” for the arrival of this Augenblick : there is no moment in the historical process where the possibility of an active rôle of the subjective moments is completely lacking. [7]

In this context, Lukacs turns his critical weapons against one of the main expressions of this positivist, “sociological”, contemplative, fatalist – chvostistisch in T&D’s terminology - and objectivist conception of history : the ideology of progress. Rudas and Deborin believe that the historical process is an evolution mechanistically and fatally leading to the next stage. History is conceived, according to the dogmas of evolutionism, as permanent advance, endless progress : the temporally later stage is necessarily the higher one in every respect. From a dialectical viewpoint, however, the historical process is “not an evolutionary nor an organic one”, but contradictory, jerkily unfolding in advances and retreats. [8]Unfortunately Lukacs does not develop this insights, that point towards a radical break with the ideology of inevitable progress common to Second and – after 1924 - Third International Marxism.

Another important aspect related to this battle against the positivist degradation of Marxism is Lukacs critique, in the second part of the essay, against the views expressed by Rudas on technology and industry as an “objective” and neutral system of “exchange between humans and nature”. This would mean, objects Lukacs, that there is an essential identity between the capitalist and the socialist society ! In his viewpoint, revolution has to change not only the relations of production but also revolutionize to a large extent the concrete forms of technology and industry existing in capitalism, since they are intimately linked to the capitalist division of labour. In this issue too Lukacs was well ahead of his time, but the suggestion remains undevelopped in his essay. [9]

Incidently, there is a striking analogy between some of Lukacs formulations in T&D – the importance of the revolutionary Augenblick, the critique of the ideology of progress, the call for a radical transformation of the technical apparatus – and those of Walter Benjamin’s last reflections.

A few months after writing Tailism and the dialectic - in any case less than one year – Lukacs wrote the essay “Moses Hess and the Problems of Idealist Dialectics” (1926) which stands for a radically different political/philosophical perspective. In this brilliant piece, Lukacs celebrates Hegel’s “reconciliation with reality” as the proof of his “grandiose realism” and his “rejection of all utopias” . While this realism permitted him to understand “the objective dialectics of the historical process”, the moralist utopianism and subjectivism of Moses Hess and the left Hegelians led nowhere. As I tried to show elsewhere, this essay provided the philosophical justification for Lukacs own “reconciliation with reality”, i.e. with the Stalinist Soviet Union , implicitly representing “the objective dialectics of the historical process.” [10] Soon afterwards, in 1927, Lukacs, who had still favourably quoted Trotsky in an essay which appeared in June 1926, published his first “anti-Trotskyst” piece, in Die Internationale, the theoretical organ of the German Communist Party. [11]

How to explain such a sudden turn, between 1925 and 1926, leading Lukacs from revolutionary subjectivism to the “reconciliation with reality” ? Probably the feeling that the revolutionary wave from 1917-23 had been beaten in Europe and that all that remained was the Soviet “socialism in one country”. Lukacs was by no means alone in drawing this conclusion : many other communist intellectuals followed the same “realistic” reasoning. Only a minority – among which of course Leon Trotsky and his followers - remained faithful to the internationalist/revolutionary hope of October. But that is another story...

To conclude : in spite of its shortcomings, Lukacs’ Tailism and dialectics is a fascinating document, not only from the viewpoint of his intellectual biography, but in its theoretical and political actuality today, as a powerful antidote to the attempts to reduce Marxism or critical theory to a mere “scientific” observation of the course of events, a “positive” description of the ups and downs of the economic conjuncture. Moreover, by his emphasis on consciousness and subjectivity, by his critique of the ideology of linear progress and by his understanding for the need of revolutionizing the prevailing technical/industrial apparatus, he appears surprisingly tuned to present issues being discussed in the international radical movement against capitalist globalization.

Notes

1. Lukacs critical review of Bukharin’s Theorie des historischen Materialismus was published in Grunberg’s Archiv für die Geschichte des Sozialismus und der Arbeiterbewegung in 1925.

2. In my essay on Lukacs (from 1979) I wrote : « We may note that the two best-known critiques, those by Rudas and Deborin, stood squarely on the ground of pre-dialectical materialism. Deborin used copious quotations from Plekhanov to show that Marxism stems from the very ‘naturalistic materialism’ criticised by Lukacs; whereas Rudas compared the Marxist laws of society with Darwin’s law of evolution, and drew the surprising conclusion that Marxism is ‘a pure science of nature’ .” (M. Lowy, Georg Lukacs – From Romanticism to Bolshevism, London, New Left Books, 1979, p. 169).

3. For instance : « Rosa Luxemburg perceived very correctly that ‘the organisation is a product of the sruggle’. She only overestimated the organic character of this process (...)’. (G. Lukacs, Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein, Berlin, Luchterhand, 1968, p.494). I tried to analyse this synthesis in Georg Lukacs p. 185.

4. G. Lukacs, GuK p.256.

5. G. Lukacs, Tailism and the dialectics, London, Verso, 2000, pp. 50, 135, 137. Cf. the German original, Chvostismus und Dialektik, Budapest, Aron Verlag, 1996, p.9

6. As John Ree very aptly comments, Rudas and Deborin stand in drect continuity with Second International positivist/determinist Marxism : “In Rudas’ mind, Trotsky and Lukacs are linked because they both stress the importance of the subjective factor in the revolution. Rudas steps forth as a defender of the ‘objective conditions’ which guranteed that the revolution was bound to fail. The striking similarity with Karl Kautsky’s review of Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy, in which he attributes the failure of the German revolution to just such objective conditions, is striking testimony to the persistence of vulgar Marxism among the emerging Stalinist bureaucracy”. (“Introduction” to T&D pp. 24-25).

7. G.Lukacs, T&D pp. 48, 54-58, 62. Cf. Chvostismus und Dialektik p. 16. Emphasis in the original. Of course, this argument is mainly developed in the first chapter of the first part of the essay, which has the explicit title “Subjectivism”; but one can find it also in other parts of the document.

8. T&D pp.55, 78, 105.

9. T&D pp. 134-135.

10. M. Löwy, Georg Lukacs pp. 194-198. The English translation of Lukacs essay on Hess can be found in his Political Writings 1919-1929, London, New Left Books, 1972, pp. 181-223.

11. The article from 1926 is « L’art pour lart und proletarische Dichtung », Die Tat 18.3, june 1926 which favourably quotes Trotsky’s critique of the Proletkult. The piece from 1927 is “Eine Marxkritik im Dienste des Trotzkismus, Rez. von Max Eastman : Marx, Lenin and the Science of Revolution“, Die Internationale, X.6, 1927.

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