Reviewed by John Gregson
Georg Lukács remains a controversial figure in Marxist philosophy for at least two interrelated reasons. The first of these involves the relationship of the ‘later’ Lukács to the ‘earlier’ Lukács of History and Class Consciousness fame. Lukács came essentially to reject his own masterpiece of Marxist philosophy and, in doing so, embraced a form of Stalinism that for many rendered his earlier work unpalatable. Yet, perhaps even more importantly, some critics argued that this Stalinist shift was not unrelated to theoretical inadequacies in what Breuer called Lukács’s ‘blueprint for tyranny’ (12) – History and Class Consciousness itself. Critics have argued that the way Lukács conceptualised the role of the Communist Party and its relationship to the working class meant that his theories paved the way for an undemocratic, authoritarian and elitist form of ‘Marxism’. Through a bold exposition of Lukács controversial concept of imputed class consciousness, Robert Lanning’s Georg Lukács and Organizing Class Consciousness challenges these interpretations of his thought. Furthermore, Lanning argues that the role of the Party, conceptualised in Lukácsian terms, remains vital to organizing resistance and developing class consciousness.
Lanning begins by setting out the familiar though nevertheless crucial problem of reification. He notes that reification is a ‘condition of one-dimensionality’ (15) that ‘projects a barrier onto immediate conditions’ (14). The effect of reification is that the aims of socialism – indeed its very possibility – are seen as unrealistic and unachievable. Most people fall back into the ideological assumption that capitalism is natural and inevitable (even desirable). Lanning powerfully argues that the strength of reification lies in its ‘tacit synchronization’ (56), that is, it needs no specific coordination to be effective and therefore its power, its seeming ability to extinguish human potentiality, is effortlessly self-perpetuating. Even when workers are faced with inhumane, terrible conditions of employment – Lanning uses a number of interesting examples here – there is still ‘an absence of consciousness beyond immediate and limited needs’ (169). Non-revolutionary attitudes in such situations are a ‘manifestation of reification’ (168) and organizations such as trade unions, alone, are incapable of providing the necessary practical and theoretical mediations that might alter this. Yet Lukács (and Lanning) do not share the pessimism of other ‘Western’ Marxists such as Herbert Marcuse, as they argue that the process of reification is not as totalizing or inescapable as Marcuse seems to suggest. Potential salvation comes in the form of the rather controversial Lukácsian solution – imputed class consciousness.
Lanning argues that imputed class consciousness is ‘not an autonomously operating social force. It is the substance or content of consciousness mediated by a social movement, a political organization or party, or the leading sector of a class’ (55). The role of the revolutionary party is to impute or ascribe knowledge or content of consciousness to the working class and, as Lanning argues, the concept of imputed class consciousness is therefore recognition of the functional dependency of the working class on the Communist Party. Without the crucial mediating role of the Party, labour disputes, for example, can be understood as exploitative and reacted to in a hostile manner, yet this will rarely develop into a ‘rational hostility’ (49) to capitalism itself which can then serve as a ‘springboard for organized action’ (50). The development of consciousness through a revolutionary organization and by a conscious minority are, in Lanning’s view, absolutely fundamental to any future goal of socialism.
Critics of Lukács (and perhaps any form of democratic centralism more generally) will immediately recognise at least two potential problems here – the first concerning the structure and role of the revolutionary party and the second centred on the process of developing consciousness itself. The first of these criticisms assumes that any type of imputation of consciousness from an organized party to the working class necessarily implies a kind of top-down, elitist relationship. On this view, the party regards itself as being in possession of a superior knowledge to the working class and their role is to ‘educate’ the masses accordingly (as Marx himself warned against in the third `Thesis on Feuerbach’). Yet this type of criticism, as Lanning shows, conceives the role of the party in a fundamentally misguided way. As both Gramsci and Lenin argued, those at the forefront of the revolutionary party are not top-down elitists, but ordinary workers who, through their radicalism, have emerged into the role of the professional revolutionary and leader. Their position might be temporary, as others emerge to replace them, and the process is one of fluidity rather than rigidity. As Lanning states, what is important in the role is one that ‘ascribed or imputed to others a character and quality of knowledge important for their immediate struggles and long-term goals’ (173).
A key strength in Lanning’s book is his discussion of the problem of how exactly class consciousness can develop. Critics tend to argue that Lukács conception of the inner transformation of the proletariat and the development of its objective historical mission (what Lanning calls the ‘main point of the concept of imputed class consciousness’ (185)) implies that their role is one without agency. The historical necessity of this mission conceives the working class in such a way as to diminish the role of choice and agency, swallowing the subject up in a mechanistic historical process. Furthermore, if such a process does not appear to be following the pre-conceived pattern of the objective march of history, Lukács is forced to appeal to a kind of voluntarism and an idealised proletariat capable of altering such a process through its own force of will.
However, as Lanning makes clear, these are caricatures of how Lukács understood the interaction between historical necessity and individual agency. Crucial to his argument is the figure of Lenin. Lenin understood individual agency and historical necessity very differently, arguing that, contrary to the dominant viewpoint, they are neither incompatible nor do they stand at opposite ends of the spectrum (42). Historical necessity, actual objective conditions, provides an understanding of how individuals can act in a given context. Subjective factors are crucial in initiating discussions and action, and although ‘the structure of the relations of production operates independently of the people who produce those values’ (47) this is a relative rather than absolute independence. This emphasizes the unity between subjective factors (agency) and objective relations. Furthermore, it provides a clearer picture of what Lukács meant when he identified the proletariat as both the subject and object in history – that is, they stand in a relationship to history that is neither deterministic nor idealistic. This, Lanning’s argument suggests, heightens the importance of the concept of imputed class consciousness even more. For whilst the historical process and individual agency are shown to be a potentially unified force, it is only through the organization of such consciousness that workers can move beyond the confines of reification and begin to realize their potentiality within themselves.
Lanning goes on to develop a fascinating argument that weaves together a discussion of false consciousness and a critique of sociological analyses of class through the assertion that the latter tend to amount to an ‘ideologically motivated dismissal of historical materialism not only as a theoretical perspective, but also its methodology as a pedagogical tool’ (110). Lanning’s point is that class is sociologically treated in a rather peculiarly negative manner, linked in turn to a more generally negative assessment of working class possibility and potential. To illustrate, Lanning asserts that academics do not generally accept the idea of a subordinated housewife, content in her social role, yet they are happy to accept working class consciousness as it is and without reference to how it might be altered, precisely because the notion of false consciousness is seen as an assault on individual sovereignty. This has the effect that generally uncritical and passive attitudes to the problems of false consciousness are adopted which, in turn, essentially reject the possibility of any political and ethical alternative to capitalism. Analyses of class are generally skewed as they adopt a position of ‘interested neutrality’ (78) which might highlight specific difficulties that the working class face, but are neutral as to how these issues might be resolved. This forms the basis of Lanning’s critique of revisionist Marxists, who, he states, ‘argue for amendments to premises designed to achieve a goal that revisionists refuse to consider’ (117).
What is most impressive about Lanning’s book is that it tackles, head on, the key criticisms of Lukács conception of the role of the party and the development of working-class consciousness. He cogently argues that Lukács philosophy amounts neither to a deification of the role of the party or that it incorporates an idealised role of the working class. Furthermore, he provides a powerful argument as to just why the role of the party is pivotal in organizing and developing class consciousness and how this is vital in any move towards socialism. Lanning also provides a strong critique of sociological studies of class and brings into question the very notion that we can understand class without also understanding class struggle. George Lukács and Organizing class consciousness is not, therefore, purely a political argument and critique, it is also an indictment of the way that we are led to understand the concepts that form the basis of our knowledge. This book is highly recommended to anyone with an interest in one of the most important and controversial Marxists of the twentieth century or in sociological discussions of class more generally.
2 December 2012