‘Georg Lukács Reconsidered: Critical Essays in Politics, Philosophy and Aesthetics’ reviewed by Tony Mckenna

Reviewed by Tony McKenna

About the reviewer

Tony is a novelist and philosopher, author of Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist …


Lukács Reconsidered contains 13 essays on Lukács, and is split into three sections. The first considers his philosophical legacy, the second his contribution to Aesthetic theory, and the final part looks at his relation to critical theory.

The collection begins with Stephen Eric Bronner’s essay on Lukács which starts with a brief but important examination of the historical context in which Lukács wrote his masterpiece History and Class Consciousness. Bronner observes,‘monopolies and trusts were increasingly dominating the market … the industrial proletariat was growing at a rapid rate. Social democratic parties were emerging with this class as its mass base. These organisations required a clear and comprehensible ideology.’ (14) Such ideology conceived history as a series of mechanical, economic progressions which would inexorably generate the proletarian revolution out of themselves paying scant regard to the individual actors subsumed under their sweeping telos. ‘History was believed to develop in stages… Each historical stage would build on the progressive accomplishments of its predecessor and only when the contradictions of a given stage were resolved would the next appear.’ (14-15)

It is in light of this that History and Class Consciousness must be understood – as the focused philosophical attempt to restore the subjective moment – ‘consciousness’ – as an integral moment in revolutionary transformation, without at the same time annihilating the objective structures and determinations of social existence through which such consciousness is filtered.

The insight is a worthwhile one. But Bronner proves unable to relate it to Lukács’ theorisation of the proletariat as the identical subject-object of history. According to Lukács the proletariat contains within itself the secret of the capitalist mode of production, for the worker is the personification of the commodity, the commodity form as a concrete social existence, as living thing: for the proletariat, therefore, knowledge of the object of capitalism – i.e., knowledge of the commodity form – is simultaneously a knowledge of subject, a knowledge of self as a historically created substance.

Bronner confuses this utterly. He says, ‘the commodity from wherein capital is the subject of the system and the proletariat its object … in reality it is the other way round.’ (19) Thus the opposition between proletariat and capital is not dissolved but maintained albeit in an inverted form – ‘the other way round’. Such a fundamental misconstruction permits Bronner to dismiss the Lukácian theorisation in the following terms: ‘the subject-object of history was always a figment of the philosophical imagination. But the quest for human dignity (that utopia projects) is real: it provides a regulative ideal to inspire practical resistance.’ (29)

In other words the antinomy between subject and object, theory and practise, which created the very schism in Kantianism that Lukács was reacting against, is, by Bronner, preserved, and grafted onto Lukács’ account retroactively – the moment of the subjective – ‘consciousness’ – has no necessary connection with the form of social being it mediates (proletariat) – thus the revolutionary transformation is reduced to a utopic pipe dream – a ‘regulative’ aspiration to which practise tends but can never realise.

Tom Rockmore’s article maintains the unfortunate practise of reformulating Lukács through the prism of Kant – if anything Rockmore is more blatant in this, informing the reader that the Kantian Copernican revolution posits as a necessary condition for knowledge ‘that the subject construct its cognitive object.’(41) So far, so good. But Rockmore continues, ‘this constuctivist claim is a form of what as early as the Differenzschrft Hegel calls the philosophy of identity (Identitatsphilosphie). At the point of knowledge, there must be an identity, based on the subject and object, knower and known.’(41)

Notice how ‘cognitive object’ becomes in the latter sentence ‘object’ – an elision which manages to blur the fact that Lukács and Marx (and the classical German philosophers) were not responding to the moment of identity in Kant, but rather the moment of difference, for the true object in the Kantian system repels cognition by its undisclosed and indecipherable nature; the noumenal stands in irreconcilable contradiction to the phenomenal. This was the contradiction which Fichte, Schelling and Hegel grappled with; it provides the basis of the dialectic which runs through German philosophy and whose (historical) resolution culminates in the concrete identity of the Marxist-Lukácian subject-object , as proletariat.

Rockmore’s misappreciation of this proves devastating. By dissolving the dialectic of subject and object in pure identity, Rockmore can’t help but form an eclectic, pragmatist account of Marx and Lukács. In his account Lukács simply picks and chooses what elements he likes from previous philosophies much as a person chooses different foods in an all you can eat buffet. ‘From Kant he takes the constructivist insight that a necessary condition of knowledge is an identity between subject and object … from Fichte he appropriates the idea of a subject as basically active and never passive … from Hegel, he takes over the insight … that at the point of self consciousness, which is achieved only through producing products.’ (45)

Fortunately Konstantinos Kavoulakos does manage to provide a lucid account of the dialectic of classical German Philosophy and Lukács’ relation to it. Kavoulakos begins with Kant who refers to our inability to … reach an identity between thought and being … the problem of the “thing in itself”, the intelligible source of phenomena which is unknown to us.’ (156) Fichte’s philosophy is understood as the endeavour to reconcile such dualism by maintaining an ‘original unity of subject and object’. (157) which itself is the result of the subject (as the ego absolutised) generating the world, the object, from itself. But just as in Kant, albeit that the Fichtean ego is not working upon a noumenal object, nevertheless there is preserved an antinomy between subject and object; in the Fichtean paradigm the object is lost in as much as it is one-sidedly determined by the categories of a subjective idealism, and retains no independence, no power, in its own right.

For this, Kavoulakos notes, Lukács turns necessarily ‘to the dialectic of subject and object in Hegel … the subject is conceived now as the producer of the world, whose product it itself is, within the frame of a historical process of a continual emergence of new forms of mediation between subject and object.’ (157) Kavoulakos uses this to bolster his own profound and effective critique of Honneth’s account of Lukács. ‘What is most interesting for us here is that Lukács insistence that the problems of bourgeois thought can be resolved through a holistic conception of history is totally absent from Honneth’s reconstruction.’ (159)

In the excellent essay ‘Reification and its Critics’ Andrew Feenberg also emphasises the importance of such a subject-object historical dialectic – ‘history moves forward through the realisation of its objective tendencies but the tendencies can only realise themselves when they are seized and appropriated by consciousness. Has Marxism ever said anything else?’ (174)

By bringing the historical dialectic to the fore Feenberg is able to show how, for Lukács, the phenomenon of reification isn’t reducible to a form of consciousness in which mistaken or reactionary ideas are adopted simply because they are pervasive. In fact ‘reification is in the first instance practical rather than theoretical’, (179) for when ‘most goods circulate as commodities the original relationships between producers and consumers are obscured’ (176) at the level of social being, or as Lukács has it, ‘the direct forms of appearance of social being are not, however, subjective fantasies of the brain, but moments of the real forms of existence.’ (quoted 176)

Feenberg argues that Adorno’s critique of Lukács remains absolutely oblivious to this, for, according to Adorno, ‘Lukács lapsed into idealism, believed the proletarian subject could constitute social reality independent of any institutional framework, or objective constraint on its action.’ (173) Adorno accuses Lukács of an almost Fichtean subjective idealism without referencing the dialectical interplay between subject and object which Lukács so meticulously cultivates – ‘Adorno is tone deaf to the music of Lukács’ dialectic’. (173)

For Lukács (like Hegel and Marx before him) the historical dialectic of subject and object involved the social totality mediated by an ontology of labour. Michael J. Thompson situates the concept of labour in the Lukácian oeuvre in his impressive essay ‘Ontology and Totality’. Critical theory increasingly tends to see social labour as ‘co-determinate along with language by preceding man and society, making it possible in the first place’, (236) with thinkers like Adorno, Habermas and Honneth fortifying such a thesis which remains essentially epistemological. But ‘epistemology, which inquires into the structure of consciousness, is unable to grasp the process of realization, or the way consciousness is shaped, determined by external objective forces,’ (236)

Conversely, by developing an ontology of labour Lukács is able proceed from a process in which ‘subjectivity and objectivity are dialectically united … a process of realisation …[whereby] our labor discloses to us the true nature of the world and ourselves … we discover the rational structure of the world through praxis, through labor as opposed to contemplative thought.’ (239-40).

Such a dialectic is able to unite knowledge about the world with the categories and structures of the world itself through the ongoing, active process of transformation (labour) whereby man becomes man. Under capitalism however the labour process is fragmented and alienated; the semblance of the whole is lost. Thompson’s essay expresses very clearly the need to overcome this – ‘to grasp the totality of the concrete nature of the social world’ (243). But if the dialectic he has elaborated between subjectivity and objectivity is to be preserved, this must occur not only through the conscious, theoretical appreciation of ‘totality’ but concomitantly through the practical refashioning of the world as ‘totality’ at the level of social existence (Subject-object identity). However the one agent capable of taking a collective control of society’s reproductive organs at the level of social existence and drawing them together in a consciously organized whole is almost entirely absent from Thompson’s analysis. The proletariat, nevertheless, remains the lynch pin of Lukács’ own.

Perhaps the essayist who is closest to the Lukácian position elaborated in History and Class Consciousness is the Trotskyite Michael Löwy. I have never read anything by Löwy which was less than excellent and his contribution here is no exception. Löwy focuses on Lukács’ mysterious ‘lost’ manuscript – Tailism and Dialectic – only discovered recently, providing a reply to the attacks levelled at History and Class Consciousness in the mid 1920s. Löwy places ‘tailism’ in the context of debates with Rudas and Deborin, concluding that Tailsman is ‘a powerful Hegelian/Marxist apology of revolutionary subjectivity’(68). However, it is also a flawed work in as much as it ‘ignores the soviets and refers only to the party’ (68).

Other essays include Timothy Hall’s well considered and descriptive critique of Honneth’s appropriation of the Lukácian concepts of reification and praxis. Like Feenberg, Hall is able to argue persuasively that ‘Honneth’s reconstruction of Lukács ends up with converting his theory of praxis into a form of moral theory.’(201) Stanley Aronowitz offers a much needed and thoughtful re-examination of Lukács’ ‘undervalued’ The Destruction of Reason. Aronowitz’ account contains a good summation of the important chapter on Nietzsche in The Destruction of Reason. ‘Despite Nietzsche’s vehement denial that he has created a philosophical system, Lukács asserts that his apparent disparate comments, cloaked as aphorisms, constitute a definite system of thought … that looks both backward and forward to an era when there existed a “dictatorship of an elite”.’ (58-9) However despite its many positive elements the essay is marred by certain inaccuracies: Aronowitz reproduces, for example, the rather worn trope of how Hegel believed ‘the Prussian State marked the end of human history since it had achieved the identity of subject and object’(57) – something which Hegel clearly did not believe.

The aesthetic section of the book begins with Peter Uwe Hohendahl’s examination the debate which took place between Lukács and Adorno on literary theory. Adorno approved of Lukács early work but criticised fiercely his later ‘dogmatic’ notion of ‘realism’ in the period after Lukács became a Marxist, but Hohendahl suggests a stronger relational identity between the two thinkers than is commonly assumed. However Hohendahl also provides an effective account of Adorno’s defence of Modernism and Lukács’ rejection of it.

Werner Jung’s essay explores Lukács account of literature in the modern age in terms of totality, its loss, and the frenetic pace of capitalism which creates a ‘permanent becoming’ (101) in the artistic forms which mediate it. These are important Lukácian premises and vital to his aesthetic, however Jung’s prose is torturous to the point of being almost indecipherable.

Unfortunately Norman Arthur Fischer’s expansive and clearly deeply researched article on the Lukácian analysis of Walter Scott also suffers from a lack of precision and murkiness which blunts its theoretical edge. Fischer introduces what he calls ‘fusion’ which purports to ‘measure the extent and nature of the identification that a character in a historical novel … has with the larger ethical and political goals, problems or feelings of their time … the more identification there is, the more fusion there is.’ (131) But at the same time ‘fusion’ is independent of ‘a right, centre or left political stance’. (132) How can such ‘identification’ or ‘fusion’ not be a political question? How is such ‘fusion’ measured? These questions are hardly addressed.

Janos Kelemen’s essay on Lukács as literary historian is interesting and impressive for it tries to place Lukács’ aesthetic in the broader context of his historical-philosophical outline – ‘history as a whole is none other than the self-realisation of the spirit, man’s becoming man, and the process whereby human capacities are fulfilled … world literature as a whole must verify it.’ (113) This essay contains an incisive consideration of Dante’s Inferno with regards to its historical position as the transitional moment between two historical periods which was expressed, according to Lukács, as “the union of the conditions of the epic and the novel”. (quoted 118)

Last but not least is Katie Terezakis’ excellent essay, ‘Living Form and Living Criticism.’ Terezakis is a vibrant, powerful writer who, in this essay, concentrates on the early Lukács’ Soul and Form and shows how already latent within this work are the elements and concerns which would come to shape his future literary outlook. ‘Lukács affirms that he is also a product and an agent of the culture to which he is so hostile. This insight, which will be incorporated into his concept of totality, becomes the very crux of Lukács aesthetic theory … to confront the adversity and atomization of modern society.’ (215-6) Terezakis also provides a vivid, shocking but entirely persuasive account of the way modern academia has been ‘reified’ in the true Lukacian sense. ‘Thinkers are beset with the need to strive frenetically for publication, opportunities and the recognition of small groups of specialists … competitiveness, intrigue, social isolation and hothouse cultivation is the norm.’ (222)

5 February 2012

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