‘Lukács’s Phenomenology of Capitalism: Reification Revalued’ by Richard Westerman reviewed by Paul Leduc Browne

Lukács’s Phenomenology of Capitalism: Reification Revalued

Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019. 308 pp., $89.99 hb
ISBN 9783319932866

Reviewed by Paul Leduc Browne

About the reviewer

Paul Leduc Browne is professeur honoraire at the Université du Québec en Outaouais in Gatineau, …


Much has been written about History and Class Consciousness (henceforth HCC); it is hard to imagine that anyone could come up with a substantially original interpretation. Richard Westerman has done so in his daring and surprising book, Lukács’s Phenomenology of Capitalism. Reification Revalued. Lucien Goldmann said that Lukács was a Kantian, who became a Hegelian, and then a Marxist. According to Westerman, Lukács in HCC was in fact a Husserlian.

Rejecting a century of interpretations of HCC, Westerman views Hegel as an influence on Lukács – but only the Hegel of the Science of Logic, not that of the Phenomenology of Spirit. Lukács proposed a phenomenology of creative and receptive attitudes toward the work of art in his Heidelberg manuscripts (1912-1918), which he wrote with a view to obtaining his ‘habilitation’ in German universities. In them, Lukács wrote: ‘In the interest of terminological clarity, and unless the contrary is explicitly stated, it must be said here once and for all that the expression ‘phenomenology’ refers to Hegel’s and not Husserl’s use of the term’ (Lukács 1974: 37, n. 10). Indeed, the unfolding of proletarian class consciousness in HCC has mostly been read as structured along the lines of Hegel’s phenomenology. Westerman, however, claims that phenomenology in the manuscripts and in HCC is in fact strictly Husserlian, not Hegelian, and that the philosophies of Edmund Husserl and Emil Lask (as well as the writings of art historians Alois Riegl and Konrad Fiedler), offer the key to understanding both the Heidelberg manuscripts and HCC – Westerman does not cite Lukács’s own statement in this regard, but mentions (55) that Agnes Heller refers to such a passage, but that she also ‘concedes’ that Lukács’s interpretation of Hegel was very ‘idiosyncratic.’ Ultimately, Westerman concludes not only that Lukács rejects the notion of identity in Hegel, but that ‘Lukács’s solution, in contrast, eschews both identity and essence’ (168). Yet, Lukács’s whole argument aims to demonstrate that the proletariat will become ‘the identical subject-object of history’ (Lukács 1971: 197).

Most readers of HCC believe that it is a work of Marxist philosophy. That is not the impression one gets from Lukács’s Phenomenology of Capitalism, which claims that Lukács ‘transfers Husserl’s account of the intentional structure of the mental acts and the phenomena of consciousness to the practical acts and phenomena of social being’ (127). The rehearsal of the Marxist sources of HCC is a well-trodden path; one can understand that Westerman should have chosen not to repeat common interpretations, but to outline a fresh one. However, he seems to be at pains to ignore the influences of Hegel and Marx on Lukács’s book (something he attempts to justify in his book’s conclusion). For example, in order to account for the relational character of Lukács’s approach, he invokes Georg Simmel. He does not see relationality here as stemming from the writings of Marx, who famously defined the human essence as the ‘ensemble of the social relations’ (Marx 1976: 3).

In general, Westerman does not display great knowledge of Marx’s theory. He seems to believe that Marx had an economistic and class-reductionist approach, a rather debatable proposition. He claims that alienation ‘is the result of a dichotomy produced by the commodity structure’ (278) between form and content. But Marx did not aim to be a theorist of commodity exchange as such; his purpose was to theorize a very specific relationship, the sale of labour power in the relationship of capitalist and wage labourer. The issue was not commodity exchange, which has existed in many modes of production, but capital.

Westerman regards as a sign of art historian Riegl’s influence the idea that ‘each type of society has a different “structure of objectivity”’ (102). One is tempted to reply: they are called modes of production (a notion that encompasses much more than economic relations). Westerman questions whether Lukács was an orthodox Marxist, arguing that Lukács’s theory of capitalism is based on reification, but does not deal with surplus value or the tendency of the rate of profit to fall – as if these were the touchstone of Marxist orthodoxy. The publication of the 1844 Manuscripts, but also of the Grundrisse and of the full version of German Ideology, revealed the extent to which HCC paralleled Marx’s thought in so many ways. Indeed, Westerman himself notes that Lukács in 1967 stressed the salience of the concept of alienation in twentieth-century thought and how HCC was centered on this problem.

Westerman constructs a straw man he repeatedly knocks down throughout his book. He accuses a variety of interpreters of Lukács of believing that the latter ‘treat[s] the relation of subject to objectivity as the interaction of two mutually external entities’ (4). No such interpretation of Lukács should be taken seriously, because it completely misunderstands his concept of reification.

For Westerman, ‘subject and object are treated [by Lukács] as structurally defined parts of a meaningful totality of consciousness’ (16). The key word here is ‘meaningful’: ‘Consciousness’ in HCC coincides with social being, writes Westerman. He writes that Lukács ‘interprets social being through a formal semantics of practices and the meaning of objects […] it is the logic of these meanings that drives social practice’ (277-278). On that view, it would seem that Lukács was an idealist after all, as critics of HCC in the Communist movement claimed!

Westerman suggests that the young Lukács oscillated between two positions: a mystical, messianic one, expressed in Soul and Form, The Theory of the Novel, and Lukács’s political writings between 1919 and 1921; and a rigorous philosophical one stated in the Heidelberg manuscripts (1912-1914, 1916-1918) and the chapters of HCC written or rewritten in 1922. Westerman attributes this to Lukács’s return in 1922 to ideas inspired by Lask, Husserl, Riegl and Fiedler. This begs the question of why his early revolutionary writings were not inspired by them. Why, in 1919, 1920 and 1921, would he ‘forget’ about the views developed in the Heidelberg manuscripts, only to rediscover them in 1922? Is there not a simpler explanation?

Ultimately, Westerman is not able to establish the unity of HCC. He proposes in his account to discard the two chapters on Rosa Luxemburg, as well as those on class consciousness, on legality and illegality, and on the changing function of historical materialism, and to focus only on the chapters ‘What Is Orthodox Marxism’, ‘Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat’, and ‘Towards a Methodology of the Problem of Organization’.

Westerman cites approvingly Lukács’s notorious comment that the sole criterion of Marxist orthodoxy is the adherence to the method of Marxism, rather than to this or that theory or concept, or even to all or any of Marx’s individual discoveries. It is easy to point out that Marx’s ‘method’ could surely not so easily be abstracted from his discoveries, and that any rejection of the latter would surely imply a real indictment of the former. Yet when Lukács speaks of ‘method’, he means the practice of grasping events and processes as aspects of totality, in other words in the light of the actuality of the moment of proletarian revolution.

Lukács’s Phenomenology of Capitalism is a very academic volume; it treats HCC as one might a work by Aquinas or La Mettrie, not as an eminently militant, communist book. Seeing it as principally influenced by Husserl, Lask or Riegl is also a way of making it a safe object of academic research in conservative universities. The publisher’s web site says that Lukács’s Phenomenology of Capitalism ‘offers a radical new interpretation of Georg Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness, showing for the first time [emphasis added] how the philosophical framework for his analysis of society was laid in the drafts of [his] “Heidelberg Aesthetics”’ and ‘reveals for the first time a range of unsuspected influences on his thought, such as Edmund Husserl, Emil Lask, and Alois Riegl’. This is simply untrue (and Westerman himself is much more careful in his utterances on this subject). Ernst Bloch (1923), Rosshof (1975), Rochlitz (1981, 1983) and Kavoulakos (2018) all noted or explored Lask’s influence on HCC. Agnes Heller wrote: ‘[The Heidelberg Aesthetics] constitutes the bridge between Soul and Form and History and Class Consciousness. One could even indulge in the dangerously unhermeneutical idea that there is no possible understanding of Lukács without the Heidelberg Aesthetics.’ (Heller 1989: 206) Miguelez wrote a doctoral thesis (published in 1973) supervised by Lucien Goldman, comparing Husserl and Lukács; Vajda (1978-79) compared them in a similar way. There is no doubt that Westerman goes much further than they did in reading Lukács’s work in the light of Husserl’s phenomenology. Lukács learned much from Kierkegaard, Husserl, Lask, Riegl and Fiedler; it is also evident that he was very deeply influenced by Marx, Luxemburg, Lenin, Hegel, Kant and many others.

The aim of HCC was not to propose a phenomenology of capitalism, as in the title of Westerman’s book, but to shed light on the development of proletarian class consciousness, and, on this basis, to give an account of the proletarian revolution within the context of a theory of history. Why did Lukács call his book History and Class Consciousness? Westerman’s account provides no sense of this. Because he does not believe in the relevance today of class struggle or proletarian revolution, Westerman has, often ingeniously, tried to provide a new meaning for HCC, by reinterpreting it completely as a work of Husserlian phenomenology, rather than of historical materialism. The result no longer resembles History and Class Consciousness.

9 July 2021


  • Bloch, Ernst 1969 Aktualität und Utopie. Zu Lukács’ "Geschichte und Klassenbewuztsein" Philosophische Aufsätze zur objektiven Phantasie Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, pp. 598-621.
  • Heller, Agnes 1989 Unknown Masterpiece Philosophy & Social Criticism No. 3, pp. 205-239.
  • Kavoulakos, Konstantinos 2018 Georg Lukács’s Philosophy of Praxis: From Neo-Kantianism to Marxism London: Bloomsbury.
  • Lukács, Georg 1974 Frühe Schriften zur Ästhetik, II: Heidelberger Ästhetik (1916-1918), Werke, Bd. 17 Neuwied: Luchterhand.
  • Lukács, Georg 1971 History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics tr. Rodney Livingstone, London: Merlin Press.
  • Marx, Karl 1976^ Theses on Feuerbach Karl Marx & Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 5 New York: International Publishers.
  • Miguelez, Roberto 1973 Sujet et histoire Ottawa: Éditions de l’Université d’Ottawa.
  • Rochlitz, Rainer 1983 Le jeune Lukács (1911-1916). Théorie de la forme et philosophie de l'histoire Paris, Payot.
  • Rochlitz, Rainer 1981 Présentation G. Lukács, Philosophie de l'art (1912-1914). Premiers écrits sur l'esthétique Paris : Klincksieck.
  • Rosshof, Hartmut 1975 Emil Lask als Lehrer von Georg Lukács. Zur Form ihres Gegenstandsbegriffs Bonn: Bouvier Verlag Herbert Grundmann.
  • Vajda, Mihály 1983 Lukács and Husserl Lukács Reappraised New York: Columbia University Press.

One comment

  1. We are all accustomed to having our arguments taken apart, our interpretations of texts questioned, or our evidence countered by other elements – this is all a familiar part of scholarship. Unfortunately, Paul Leduc Browne’s review does not actually do this, as it does not engage in any way with the substance of my argument; in some cases, he seems in fact not to have understood my basic terms at all. (For example, I am entirely confused as to how Browne thinks the Neo-Kantian term Gegenständlichkeitsform, frequently used by Lukács in History and Class Consciousness [HCC], is in any way parallel to modes of production; this is like comparing apples and systems of government.) I am, however, confident in my scholarship; on every single point, I have provided both evidence and argument in support of my view, although Browne has, for whatever reasons of his own, chosen not to engage with these in his review. I am confident that anyone reading my book will be able to form their own judgment, and I don’t see any need to rebut these claims here when they are fully dealt with therein.

    However, Browne makes a number of factually-incorrect statements about my book. In some cases, he states that I sought to advance claims that I explicitly and specifically stated that I was not making. In other cases, Browne’s statements take the form of personal attacks that speculate on my motives and beliefs without providing any evidence in support of them. I do not know his motive for these misrepresentations, as I have never met or heard of him before. Given the ad hominem character of some of these claims, it is worth correcting such falsehoods; I am sure that any reader will bear them in mind when evaluating Browne’s review as a whole. They are as follows:

    1. According to Browne, I am arguing that “Lukács in HCC was in fact a Husserlian,” that I am “reinterpreting it [HCC] as a work of Husserlian phenomenology rather than of historical materialism,” or that I see Lukács as “principally influenced by Husserl, Lask, or Riegl.” I do not state this anywhere – in fact, I explicitly stated that Lukács was “not… an orthodox Husserlian. His use of Husserl was by no means sufficiently systematic or granular to count as such” (p.17). I made a point of highlighting the influence of Marx and Hegel along with my reasons for giving less attention to them, in both the Introduction (pp.19-21) and conclusion (p.280-84), and stated throughout that I saw Lukács’s central problem as defined by Marx and Hegel (e.g. p.118, p.145 et passim). As I put it on p.280, “It is Marx’s class analysis that Lukács relies on in pointing to the proletariat as the potential disruptor of reification, and Marx’s overall analysis is assumed throughout. But in the account I have offered here, Marx is taken for granted, as it were: he is the object viewed through a lens comprising Husserl, Lask, and Riegl. Rather than offering a complete systematic account of his thought and its effects on Lukács, I have concentrated on certain concepts refracted through this particular set of Lukács’s influences.” Very clearly and explicitly then – Marx as the core, but a reading taken in certain directions by Lukács’s other influences. It is, therefore, demonstrably false to attribute to me the claim that Lukács in HCC was a Husserlian, that I seek to present HCC as a work of Husserlian phenomenology, or that I saw him as principally influenced by Husserl, Lask, or Riegl.

    (In fact, I took the metaphor of a lens directly from Lukács, who made a similar observation in relation to different sources, stating that he read Marx “through spectacles tinged by Simmel and Max Weber”; in the same place, he notes the great diversity of influences on him at the time, saying that it would be untrue to “iron out the glaring contradictions of that time.” This was not the first time he recognized that HCC did not present a monolithic, coherent argument – his preface to the first edition noted that the essays therein were written at various different times and thus did not form “a complete scientific system.”)

    2. Browne states that I do not think class conflict is important. He offers no evidence for this claim, and it is entirely untrue. In fact, I spent some time describing and defending Lukács’s theoretical accounts of the role of a revolutionary Party, (eg p.184ff, p.222-9), the demand for revolutionary action (pp.186-91), or the analysis of proletarian experience (pp.210-219), which I would not have done had it been the case that questions of class conflict were unimportant to me. Browne might legitimately have disagreed with my interpretation of Lukács, or my theorization of these themes, but he does not do so. The statement that such matters are not important to me is straightforwardly false.

    I do, on the other hand, believe that the situation today is radically different from the revolutionary situation in which Lukács was writing, and that opposition to the hegemonic powers currently takes on other forms. That doesn’t mean I reject the significance of class conflict – merely that any practical activity has to recognize that anyone oriented towards that will need to take account of the way oppositional movements today have crystallized more around issues such as race/ethnicity than around class, and thus a pure and direct appeal to class is unlikely to be as effective as it was a century ago.

    3. Browne states that I seem “to believe that Marx had an economistic and class-reductionist approach.” I do not believe this and I do not say this anywhere in the book; Browne offers no evidence for this vague accusation. I did remark that Second International Marxism tended towards reductionism, but I explicitly stated that this was because they emphasized only certain parts of Marx’s theory – thereby indicating that I am fully aware that such an approach would be contrary to Marxism as a whole.

    4. Browne ascribes to me the belief that surplus value or the tendency of the rate of profit to fall are “the touchstone of Marxist orthodoxy.” I do not. In the sentence to which I assume he is referring, I state “There is no real space here… to consider matters that loom large in Marx’s thought, such as surplus value, the composition of capital, or the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.” The clue is in the words “such as,” which indicate that I am merely suggesting some of the many topics within Marx that Lukács does not touch on. It is therefore demonstrably incorrect to state that I hold the belief that these themes Marxist orthodoxy. (This, by the way, was a passing comment in the conclusion: I do not know why Browne has chosen to devote such space on that, rather than the actual substance of my argument throughout the book.)

    5. While I have no particular desire to defend the language used in my publisher’s blurb, the italicized statement “this is simply untrue” implies a degree of deliberate misrepresentation that is worth rebutting. It is certainly true that others have noted Lask’s influence on Lukács (though my book in fact came out around the same time as Konstantinos Kavoulakos’s outstanding contribution, as both were available in mid to late 2018; though neither of us was aware before publication of certain parallels between us, I was happy to be able to speak at his book launch at the Historical Materialism conference in London that autumn). However, I made a point of stating this myself, as well as pointing to Andrew Feenberg’s excellent work, which also examines the role of Lask. On Husserl, he points to works by Miguelez and Vajda that compare him with Lukács. They word here is “compare”: they place Lukács and Husserl side by side, but do not argue that Husserl had some direct influence on Lukács in some sense. (In the case of Vajda, for example, he compares Lukács’s account to Husserl’s Crisis – which was only written in the mid-1930s, making it rather unlikely to have had any influence on a book published in 1923.) Thus, to state that the existence of these comparative pieces undermines the claim to examine the influence of Husserl on HCC for the first time is incorrect. Browne does not offer any evidence against the novelty of my claims regarding the ways traces of Riegl and Fiedler can be found in HCC. Thus, the statement by my publisher that he quotes is at least three-quarters true – and on the fourth, Lask, I was very open in citing earlier scholarship on this rather than claiming originality. I therefore reject the insinuation of dishonesty, and I have no idea why Browne spent so much effort on that rather than on the substance of my arguments.

    6. Browne accuses me of constructing a “straw man,” thereby impugning my honesty and good faith in representing other interpreters of Lukács. I give specific details about and quotations from the critics of Lukács with whom I disagree, and I address a number of their explicit criticisms directly. It would certainly be valid to argue that I had misunderstood or misinterpreted some of them (rather than deliberately constructing a straw man) – but Browne does not state which ones I have so treated, nor does he indicate why he disagrees with my representation of them, thereby failing to substantiate this personalized accusation.

    7. Browne makes an ad hominem attack in stating that seeing HCC as “principally influenced by Husserl, Lask or Riegl is also a way of making it a safe object of academic research in conservative universities,” and describes my book as “a very academic volume” that “treats HCC as one might a work by Aquinas or La Mettrie.” By indicating that my work advances the program of “conservative” universities, he implicitly associates me with such conservatism and its institutional manifestations, in order to undermine my argument by such association in lieu engaging with its substance. In the first place, my personal beliefs or institutional alignment are not even relevant to any theoretical or philosophical assessment of the merits of my argument and evidence. Second, I reject the insinuation that either I or my argument are in some way conservative – Browne offers no real case to support this, and I take this statement falsely associating me with these beliefs as a personal insult. Finally, Browne offers no justification for the claim that academic readings of a text are inherently conservative or tend to make a text safe. I don’t believe there’s some undialectically-rigid opposition between the scholarly reading of a text and its practical use; each can help the other. It’s far better (and less conservative), I think, to show that a text is richer and more multi-dimensional than previously believed, suggesting ways it might address a broader range of practical matters, instead of reifying the text as having one single, univocal meaning.

    I don’t, however, protest too much against the accusation of being academic. In 1924, Lukács, Karl Korsch, and others were condemned by Zinoviev as “professors spinning out their Marxist theories,” too scholarly and abstract in their approach. So in this case, I am happy for Browne to take on Zinoviev’s mantle, leaving me to share the burden of being excessively academic with Lukács himself.

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