CAPITALISM AND CLASS CONSCIOUSNESS. The ideas of Georg Lukács Chris Nineham - PDF

CAPITALISM AND CLASS CONSCIOUSNESS The ideas of Georg Lukács Chris Nineham Contents 1. Introduction: A fight against fatalism 5 2. Ideology, class and crisis The puzzle of class consciousness 19

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CAPITALISM AND CLASS CONSCIOUSNESS The ideas of Georg Lukács Chris Nineham Contents 1. Introduction: A fight against fatalism 5 2. Ideology, class and crisis The puzzle of class consciousness Do dialectics matter? Spontaneity and organisation On Leninism The actuality of revolution? 55 Notes 61 Further reading 63 1. Introduction: A fight against fatalism For the last few decades Georg Lukács work has been kept on the margins of philosophy and socialist theory. As crisis returns to haunt the system it is time for this to change. Lukács great achievement, which should by rights ensure him a central place in the radical tradition, was to develop the most coherent account to date of how revolutionary consciousness can emerge under capitalism. To do this, he had to do the opposite; that is, explain how capitalism survives most of the time, despite the misery it creates. In his key philosophical works of the 1920s, he was fighting against forms of fatalism and passivity that he believed threatened the socialist movement. He was writing at a very different time from our own, but his arguments have an obvious charge now, when the left has the chance to move beyond commentary and start trying to shape reality. Critics often accuse Lukács the revolutionary of idealism or voluntarism, of believing that the sheer force of ideas could change the world. This is a complete misunderstanding. He was battling to reintegrate human agency into contemporary Marxism, but in a properly dialectical fashion. His crucial breakthrough was to deal convincingly with what appears to be a paradox for revolutionary theory. How can humans be at the centre of the revolutionary process arising out of capitalism, when the great complaint about capitalism is that it makes most of us powerless? How can active human liberation be a product of a dehumanising system? Another reason his work speaks to us with particular 6 Capitalism and class consciousness power today is because it centres on the drastic effects of the capitalist free market on everyday life. Lukács argued that commodification shapes every aspect of our lives. This assessment has been mercilessly borne out by the last thirty years of neoliberal globalisation. But Lukács analysis allows us to get beyond the two opposing theoretical approaches to commodification which are common on the left. One, characteristic of some of the key intellectual figures of the anti-capitalist movement, is the idea that commodification automatically breeds rebellion. The second is the notion that commodity capitalism degrades the critical faculties of humans beyond repair. Lukács argued commodification is the secret to both subservience and revolt. Which gains the upper hand depends not on blind forces of history, but on conscious human intervention, and on the way we understand how ideas change. For all his sometimes dizzying flights of philosophical abstraction, his conclusions are practical. Lukács achievement in these years was to trace the logic that leads from Marx s Capital to Lenin s What is to be Done? His arguments help us answer a whole series of immediate questions. In what circumstances does capitalism create resistance? How powerful is ruling class propaganda and how can it be overcome? Where do alternative ideas come from and how can we test their relative value? And last but not least, what can socialists and activists do to accelerate the process of radicalisation? A philosopher activist Lukács became a revolutionary and a Marxist during the greatest wave of working class struggle in history, unleashed by the Russian revolution at the end of the First World War. Already a well-known intellectual in Hungary, months after joining the newly-formed Hungarian Communist Party in December 1918 he found himself a leader in the events which led to the brief Hungarian Soviet Republic in Capitalism and class consciousness He was People s Commissar for Education and for a short time a political commissar at the battlefront. The Hungarian Soviet Republic ended in disaster. This was because, as Lukács himself came to recognise, it was unstable from the start. The Hungarian Communist Party had called an insurrection in February 1919 well before it had majority support in the workers councils. The uprising was crushed, as mass radicalisation proved no substitute for political preparation. All the same, the militancy of peasants and workers and the annexation of parts of the country by foreign powers led to the collapse of the bourgeois government, creating a power vacuum. The Hungarian Soviet Republic came about in March 1919 through a merger between the Communists and the reformist Social Democratic Party (SDP). The SDP was handed power by the ruling class in a last ditch attempt to salvage the system. Lukács and the leadership of the Communist Party interpreted the new alliance of reformists and revolutionaries as a spontaneous restoration of proletarian unity, but it turned out to be a recipe for confusion and then disaster. Communist Party leaders acted as if they were in a revolutionary government, forcing through nationalisation of the land with no concern for the interests of the peasantry, while the majority of workers remained under reformist leadership. Faced with new attacks from an alliance of counter-revolutionary powers, the SDP leaders capitulated and the Communists were isolated. A reactionary government was formed, and unleashed a reign of terror on the left, executing 5,000 and driving tens of thousands more out of the country. Lukács wrote his key works of the 1920s Lenin: A Study in the Unity of his Thought, History and Class Consciousness and Tailism and the Dialectic in the aftermath of this experience, while he was in exile in Vienna. We can see now this was a decisive moment for the socialist movement. Before the war, the world socialist movement 8 Capitalism and class consciousness had been organised in the Second International. Its complete accommodation to the system was exposed by its leading parties support for the First World War. The Russian Bolsheviks stood out against this betrayal and led a successful revolution that became an inspiration for millions around the world. Both History and Class Consciousness and Lenin: A Study in the Unity of his Thought express the revolutionary potential of the moment, and the fear that lessons were not being learnt from the experience. By 1925, when Lukács wrote Tailism and the Dialectic, there were signs that the isolation of the Russian revolution was encouraging a new form of fatalism. A philosophy of action Lukács fought to re-establish the active, interventionist core of Marxism against the constant threat that it would degenerate into a sterile science, a process of reading off human history from impersonal, objective developments. His first step was to insist on the totality of the revolutionary process. Against standard interpretations of Marxism he argued that it is not the primacy of economic motives in historical explanation that constitutes the decisive difference between Marxism and bourgeois thought, but the point of view of totality. 1 The idea of totality matters because it is only possible to understand the true significance of an event or phenomenon if it is grasped as part of the sum total of processes that make up the capitalist system. The notion of totality is also crucial to understanding the role of consciousness in history. Consciousness is not something that stands outside history observing, it is itself a part of the process of history, both shaping and being shaped by it. A correct theoretical understanding on the part of the working class is neither an optional extra, nor an inevitable product of Capitalism and class consciousness 9 the working out of the contradictions of capitalism. It is an absolute necessity if we are to avert disaster, and as Lukács argued, it becomes more important rather than less so in a revolutionary crisis. As the decisive battle in the class struggle approaches, the power of a true or false theory to accelerate or retard progress grows in proportion. The realm of freedom, the end of the pre-history of mankind means precisely that the power of the objectified, reified relations between men begins to revert to man. The closer this process comes to its goal the more urgent it becomes for the proletariat to understand its own historical mission and the more vigorously and directly proletarian class consciousness will determine each of its actions. [HCC 69-70] From where does this consciousness come? For Lukács, as for Marx, socialism is not a blueprint but a result of the fight of working people for their interests. It is both a product of capitalism and the negation of capitalism. But if socialism is in the interests of the working class, the question becomes, why aren t the majority of workers permanently fighting for it? In fact, how come we haven t got there already? Lukács answers revolved around two ideas. First, he argued that workers are in a unique position from which to understand the way the capitalist system works. At the same time, he saw that life under capitalism creates a sense of powerlessness, a separation between the individual and historical process. It is this double reality that explains the mixed, contradictory consciousness that most people exhibit most of the time. Lukács three key works of the 1920s still form the most systematic theoretical account of how this contradictory consciousness is created and how it can be overcome. They are partly reflections on the lessons of his own 10 Capitalism and class consciousness experience. They were also products of his re-examination of the philosophical basis of Marxism, which was triggered by his first systematic reading of Lenin. History and Class Consciousness and his other books from the period were first denounced and then suppressed by the Stalinists. They promoted too active, too subversive a version of Marxism for the new bureaucratic rulers. Indeed Lukács himself disowned them at the end of the 1920s. But History and Class Consciousness has proved irrepressible. Until its reprint in 1967 it had an underground existence, reappearing in pirated form whenever insurgent struggle re-emerged. As Stalin s regime strangled the revolution in Russia and misdirected revolutionaries around the world, Lukács moved away from revolutionary politics and dedicated himself to literary criticism. His hopes for revolutionary change rose once again towards the end of his life, in the late 1960s. But what follows is neither a biography of Georg Lukács nor a description of how his ideas evolved and changed during his long life. Others have done that job brilliantly. The aim here is to introduce the work of Lukacs revolutionary years to people who are once again struggling to change the world. 2. Ideology, class and crisis After speaking at a discussion circle, Lukács was once asked, Isn t there a deep bond between the factory owner and the worker? He replied, Yes quite decidedly. The same as that between the spider and the fly in its web. 2 People are often surprised at how much time Lukács spends in History and Class Consciousness on the ideas and attitudes of the ruling class. The reason is that ruling class ideas are uniquely powerful in capitalist society, because of the unprecedented domination of a single economic system and the interdependence of the two main classes. But the domination of ruling class ideas is not complete. Capitalism is a system based on contradictions, and the fragmented experience of immediate reality under capitalism normally conceals the totality of relations that make up the system. The various mediations at work within capitalism the law, education, political institutions contain the fundamental contradictions most of the time. They cannot, however, resolve them, and this fact finds expression in bourgeois thought. The ideas of the ruling class Bourgeois thought is inconsistent. This inconsistency is suggested historically by the fact that, precisely at the time that the bourgeoisie had achieved their great victory over the feudal order, they were faced with a new enemy: the working class. The freedom which had been the bourgeoisie s rallying cry during their great revolutionary struggles had to be replaced or accompanied by new forms of repression. The bourgeoisie had to write class struggle out of history even though it had itself been created by class struggle. The result is that in suppressing the notion of collective human struggle, the ruling class is left clinging 12 Capitalism and class consciousness to a belief in the power of the individual and at the same time in that of inhuman forces. Inconsistency is structured into bourgeois thought by the nature of capitalism. First, the capitalists are more interested in the expansion of capital than production itself. So although the central questions of society are questions of production who produces what, how and for whom these are secondary for the capitalist, who just wants to produce and sell commodities. Capitalism may foreground the individual and individual freedom of choice as its central motivating idea but the economic structures which it has created have ruthlessly destroyed the conditions for individuality. Second, although capitalism is a social force, it is a blind one. Because capitalists compete with one another, the overall function and social impact of the system takes place unbeknown to them, and, as it were, against their will and behind their backs [HCC 63]. So, although capitalists act as a class in pushing society forward, they experience this process as something independent of them. It is a process they therefore cannot fully understand. Capitalists are, for example, in denial about the systemic nature of economic crises. Almost every boom is accompanied by claims that the cycle of boom and bust is ended. To recognise that crises are structured into the way the system works would be to recognise the irrational, destructive nature of the capitalist system as a whole. As Marx commented, each new financial crisis heaps theoretical fright on top of practical panic, at which time the capitalists shudder before the impenetrable mystery in which their own economic relations are shrouded [HCC 63]. The bourgeoisie then attempts to embrace the whole of society with its values, but it cannot grasp the real relations of the society over which it has so much micro-control. Capitalism and class consciousness 13 The tragic dialectics of the bourgeoisie can be seen in the fact that it is not only desirable but essential for it to clarify its own class interests on every particular issue while at the same time such a clear awareness becomes fatal when it is extended to the question of the totality. [HCC 65] Lukács explains how the capitalist class has historically responded to this situation by trying to find formal, false totalities to hide or explain away the real foundations of bourgeois society. In the nineteenth century they flirted with mystical concepts about the essence of history and the state. Property, freedom and unrestricted initiative were regarded as sacred. The temptation of mysticism is in constant tension with the need for rationality to serve the needs of production. The move to various forms of capitalist planning in the twentieth century partially eroded the basis for openly mystical explanations of how the world was working, at least in the capitalist mainstream. But the opposition between abstract, formal laws and a fragmented, atomised, immediate reality is still with us. Everything from academic research to the daily news is parcelled into specialised, separate categories. This leads to a loss of a sense of how things are connected and therefore the nature of their real significance. Events or facts are isolated from any history or explanation, which in turn encourages an acceptance of reality as given and unchangeable. Meanwhile, mystifying universals have been making a comeback since the victory of the free market. Since the failure of Keynesian economics at the end of the 1970s and up to the current economic crisis, the market was once more treated as a benign force of nature. Francis Fukuyama s end of history was a strange case of a negative universal, a wished-for reversion to a spontaneous, natural order, which the Western powers perversely tried to 14 Capitalism and class consciousness impose on various parts of the world by force. The language of human rights appears to be a more positive universal framework. But while benign enough as ideas, these rights remain unobtainable abstractions for the majority of the world s population. And as abstract principles, they contain no clue as to how to change the facts on the ground. Lukács description of the bourgeois understanding of the world retains its relevance:...reality disintegrates into a multitude of irrational facts and over these a network of purely formal laws emptied of content is then cast [HCC 155]. Crisis and consciousness The inconsistency in the capitalists worldview periodically becomes a liability. Although capitalism has created a form for the state and a system of law corresponding to its needs and harmonising with its own structure, [HCC 95] Lukács points out the limits of this process. Ultimately, the formal structure of laws cannot suppress the irrationality of the system. Investment decisions are driven by the needs of profit, which are not the same as social needs, and so theory and practice are brought into irreconcilable opposition to each other [HCC 64]. So, for example, non-economic capitalist institutions can t simply mirror the irrationalities of the economic system or they would be unable to function. The legal system or the political world have to have some internal coherence and therefore relative autonomy from the economic base. But the inescapable domination of the economic process means that contradictions cannot be avoided. It leads to the embarrassment of a justice system that claims all are equal before the law, but will only allow access to court for the rich. It creates a political system that claims to be based on one person one vote but allows corporate lobbyists special access to its representatives. The ruling class tries to conceal or resolve these Capitalism and class consciousness 15 inconsistencies by re-enforcing the separation of the political, legal, economic realms and so on. But this fiction starts to break down at times of crisis. Crises show the accidental and chaotic relation of two sides of what is normally presented as a seamless economic whole. Meanwhile, in the midst of panic, the role of state institutions is exposed, as politicians vote to bail out the banks, or police forces attack unemployed protestors. Crises don t automatically create an anti-capitalist consciousness, but they open up the possibility for its development. In periods of economic crisis the position is quite different. The unity of the economic process now moves within reach. So much so that even capitalist theory cannot remain wholly untouched by it, though it can never fully adjust to it. Even if the particular symptoms of crisis appear separately (according to country, branch of industry, in the form of economic or political crisis, etc.), and even if in consequence the reflex of the crisis is fragmented in the immediate psychological consciousness of the workers, it is still possible and necessary to advance beyond this consciousness. And this is instinctively felt to be a necessity by larger and larger sections of the proletariat. [HCC 75] Working class ideas Lukács starts from the similarities of capitalist experience for worker and capitalist. But these similarities are partial and can break down. The bourgeois can live with the contradiction, on the one hand, of thinking that reality emanates from his ow
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