History and Class Consciousness  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
See Class consciousness
See Political consciousness

Written between 1919 and 1922 and first published in 1923, György Lukács's History and Class Consciousness initiated the current of thought that came to be known as Western Marxism. The book is notable for contributing to debates concerning Marxism and its relation to sociology, politics and philosophy, and for reconstructing Marx's theory of alienation before many of the works of the Young Marx had been published. Lukács's work elaborates and expands upon Marxist theories such as ideology, false consciousness, reification and class consciousness.

In the first chapter, "What is Orthodox Marxism?", Lukács defined orthodoxy as the fidelity to the "Marxist method", and not to the "dogmas":

"Orthodox Marxism, therefore, does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx’s investigations. It is not the ‘belief’ in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a ‘sacred’ book. On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method. It is the scientific conviction that dialectical materialism is the road to truth and that its methods can be developed, expanded and deepened only along the lines laid down by its founders." (§1)

He criticized revisionist attempts by calling to the return to this Marxist method, which is fundamentally dialectical materialism. In much the same way that Althusser would later define Marxism and psychoanalysis as "conflictual sciences", Lukács conceives "revisionism" as inherent to the Marxist theory, insofar as dialectical materialism is, according to him, the product of class struggle:

"For this reason the task of orthodox Marxism, its victory over Revisionism and utopianism can never mean the defeat, once and for all, of false tendencies. It is an ever-renewed struggle against the insidious effects of bourgeois ideology on the thought of the proletariat. Marxist orthodoxy is no guardian of traditions, it is the eternally vigilant prophet proclaiming the relation between the tasks of the immediate present and the totality of the historical process." (end of §5)

According to him, "The premise of dialectical materialism is, we recall: 'It is not men’s consciousness that determines their existence, but on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness.'... Only when the core of existence stands revealed as a social process can existence be seen as the product, albeit the hitherto unconscious product, of human activity." (§5). In line with Marx's thought, he thus criticized the individualist bourgeois philosophy of the subject, which founds itself on the voluntary and conscious subject. Against this ideology, he asserts the primacy of social relations. Existence — and thus the world — is the product of human activity; but this can be seen only if the primacy of social process on individual consciousness, which is but the effect of ideological mystification, is accepted. This doesn't entail that Lukács restrain human liberty on behalf of some kind of sociological determinism: to the contrary, this production of existence is the possibility of praxis.

Henceforth, the problem consists in the relationship between theory and practice. Lukács quotes Marx's words: "It is not enough that thought should seek to realise itself; reality must also strive towards thought." How does the thought of intellectuals be related to class struggle, if theory is not simply to lag behind history, as it is in Hegel's philosophy of history ("Minerva always comes at the dusk of night...")? Lukács criticizes Engels' Anti-Dühring, charging that he "does not even mention the most vital interaction, namely the dialectical relation between subject and object in the historical process, let alone give it the prominence it deserves." This dialectical relation between subject and object gives the basis for Lukács' critique of Kant's epistemology, according to which the subject is the exterior, universal and contemplating subject, separated from the object.

For Lukács, "ideology" is really a projection of the class consciousness of the bourgeoisie, which functions to prevent the proletariat from attaining a real consciousness of its revolutionary position. Ideology determines the "form of objectivity", thus the structure of knowledge itself. Real science must attain, according to Lukács, the "concrete totality" through which only it is possible to think the current form of objectivity as a historical period. Thus, the so-called eternal "laws" of economics are dismissed as the ideological illusion projected by the current form of objectivity ("What is Orthodoxical Marxism?", §3). He also writes: "It is only when the core of being has showed itself as social becoming, that the being itself can appear as a product, so far unconscious, of human activity, and this activity, in turn, as the decisive element of the transformation of being." ("What is Orthodoxical Marxism?",§5) Finally, "orthodoxical marxism" is not defined as interpretation of Capital as if it were the Bible or as embracement of certain "marxist thesis", but as fidelity to the "marxist method", dialectics.

Lukács presents the category of reification whereby, due to the commodity nature of capitalist society, social relations become objectified, precluding the ability for a spontaneous emergence of class consciousness. It is in this context that the need for a party in the Leninist sense emerges, the subjective aspect of the re-invigorated Marxian dialectic.

In his later career, Lukács repudiated the ideas of History and Class Consciousness, in particular the belief in the proletariat as a subject-object of history" (1960 Postface to French translation), but he wrote a defence of them as late as 1925 or 1926. This unfinished manuscript, which he called Tailism and the Dialectic, was only published in Hungarian in 1996 and English in 2000 under the title A Defence of History and Class Consciousness. It is perhaps the most important "unknown" Marxist text of the twentieth century.




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