Lukacs and the Pretenders

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I had Stalinism to contend with; what was your excuse?

If there is any writer who sums up in one life all the contradictions of twentieth century Europe it is Georg Lukács. Born in Hungary in 1885, he gathered around himself a literary circle of poets, playwrights and musicians, fusing in their lives and works the militant philosophical elitism of Nietszche with a vague social idealism. Counting among his friends Thomas Mann, Max Weber, Béla Bartók and other future “great names” of interwar European culture, Lukács was converted to Communism in double-quick time in November 1918, that is, after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia but just three months before the “united front” 133-day Red (Socialist and Communist) government in Hungary. Lukács served it as the Commissar for public education. On the defeat of this “Hungarian Soviet”, Lukács was exiled first to Vienna and then ultimately Stalin’s Russia. Lukács’ 1923 philosophical masterpiece History and Class Consciousness (HCC) provided a Hegelian re-reading of Marx, and in particular of Marx’s theory of “commodity fetishism” (i.e. alienation). This part of it was vindicated, at the level of theory, by the ten-year later publication of Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, texts Lukács could never have read or heard of, but the core ideas of which Lukács effectively “imagined” into being even before their actual discovery. Disowned by the leaders of the emergent Stalinist state under Bolshevisation, Lukács in turn repudiated his own writing as ultra-left. For the next thirty years, he wrote a series of hack works, arguing that the philosophical ideals which had inspired him in his own youth were a series of infections, by which the entire European mind had been overcome with the disease of fascism. Lukács was brought into the Nagy government in 1956, becoming a reluctant leader of the Hungarian revolt against Stalinism. This final, and uncharacteristic, act of bravery was punished with house arrest, a period of exile and lengthy isolation on his return. Lukács died of lung cancer in Budapest in 1971.

The Lukács who has come back into vogue in recent years is not the Lukács of History and Class Consciousness, but the Lukács who on Lenin’s death published in February 1924, Lenin: A Study on the Unity of his Thought. The beauty of this pamphlet, for those inclined to what Hal Draper called “Socialism from above”, is that it provides a perfect justification for a party which can do anything, led by a caste of intellectuals who are philosophically incapable of ever being wrong. It bears, in other words, the moment of its birth; at the exact point when “Leninism” was degenerating into “Stalinism”.

Lukács’s Lenin opens with a judgment of Lenin’s greatness: Marxism has produced “geniuses”, Lukács argues, and it has produced “mediocre scholars”. Marx was one of the former because he had the ability to think away from the world he know (the English factory system) and predict from it the global future of capitalism. Lenin stands in the same position, Lukács continues, because he grasped that the revolution was approaching. Lenin, Lukács writes, dedicated his life to the idea of the “actuality of revolution”, i.e. the idea that the working class globally had reached a sufficient stage of historical maturity so that “revolution is already on its agenda”.

Now, it is only polite, at a funeral, to say a few kind words about the person who has died. Lukács could not be criticised for praising Lenin on his death. Marx was, on any meaningful scale, a “great” socialist; and Lukács sets out the right test of his genius. But when people are directed towards his pamphlet today, this is not done altogether innocently. They are invited to follow a similar psychological exercise themselves. “Greatness”, any contemporary reader will have picked up is reserved for freelance commentators on Russia Today. Since most of us can only aspire to such an elevated stage, our residual greatness can consist in no more than sitting peacefully while the Leader speaks, and applauding at their  pauses. What is missing is a theory in which knowledge can be developed collectively, in which Marx’s theory of proletarian revolution was shaped by Silesian weavers, Mancunian Chartists or Paris communards. Meanwhile the declaration, seven years after October, that revolution was already on “its” (i.e. the working class’ agenda) must have made compelling reading in its time. Today, it conceals rather than opening up the awkward questions of i) whether the working-class was objectively ready to lead all of humanity (i.e. the debate between the Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks and Trotsky), and ii) whether this readiness was a temporary or a permanent condition.

The third section of Lukacs’ Lenin, is devoted to the wisdom of the political party. Here, as in History and Class Consciousness, the party is portrayed as the carrier of the historical interests of the entire working class, a mission which could not be trusted to the class itself. Now, we could have an interesting discussion about whether this really was Lenin’s theory, or whether in so far as Lenin said anything like this, he was merely following the orthodoxy approach of pre-war social democracy (this in essence is Lars Lih’s argument). But where Lukács goes unquestionably further than Lenin is in saying that class consciousness has to be protected not merely from most workers, but even from most members of the revolutionary party. Far too many workers, he argues, want a middle-class (“petty bourgeois”) lifestyle, or would like to have plum jobs working full-time as trade unionists, or would be willing to make the wrong compromise with the bourgeoisie. “Theoretical clarity, corresponding agitation and propaganda by conscious revolutionary groups are not enough by themselves against this danger. For these conflicts of interest express themselves in ways which remain concealed from the workers for a long time; so much so that even their own ideological spokesmen [i.e. the members of the party] sometimes have no idea that they have themselves already forsaken the interests of the class as a whole.”

Lukács’ solution is “the strictest selection of party members on the basis of their proletarian class-consciousness”. IE you could not have a revolutionary party unless it made a policy, and not any policy but the “strictest” policy, of allowing membership only to those who agree with every one of its ideas. But if it is not the class, and it is not the party; who then represents the historic interests of the working-class? Lukács says, in effect, the leadership of the party: only those with “the ability to foresee the approaching revolution.” We find again the same problem of historical knowledge as before. If you have spent your life, as Lukács had until that point, never working, but waiting for several years in the hope of eventually securing your own Professorial appointment, it is easy to assume that all “knowledge” is like academic knowledge in the humanities, i.e. it is produced by original philosophers in brilliant isolation from their contemporaries, seeing the future more clearly than anyone else, thinking and writing by themselves.

In a Marxist party, it is possible to imagine that the only theoretical contributions that anyone is capable of making are “perspectives”, i.e. great global documents stitching together the latest developments from revolutions in one continent to the next “united front” conference in London. A faction which failed to produce a global perspective of life, the universe and everything, would (on this definition) be politically indefensible, whatever else had brought it into being, for it would have failed to match up to the Philosopher’s vision of himself and his project. Once you start down the path of assuming that only those who have the ability to foresee the revolution are the holders of the historic interests of the working class then by definition not merely most of the class, but nearly all of the party (i.e. all those who have a job, who do not spend their days fantasising that the Financial Times gives them a dialectical insight into capitalism’s deepest secrets) had better be quiet. We will not foresee the revolution; there is no role for us.

What do you mean; you gave Owen Jones the 3pm speaking slot?

Lukács describes the democratic deficit of life under capitalism (“the undialectical concept of the majority”), without showing any enthusiasm at all for spelling out how socialism might actually become more democratic than the society it had defeated. We can forgive the lacuna; the Soviet leaders were always likely to be Lukács’s most careful readers. What positive conception could Lukács have given of democracy in the actual conditions of the degeneration of 1917?

Lukács tells his readers that “Leadership over the non-proletarian intermediate strata in the proletarian state is … materially, quite different from leadership over them in the bourgeois state. There is also an essential formal difference: the proletarian state is the first class state in history which acknowledges quite openly and un-hypocritically that it is a class state, a repressive apparatus, and an instrument of class struggle. This relentless honesty and lack of hypocrisy is what makes a real understanding between the proletariat and the other social strata possible in the first place.” This conviction that a repressive apparatus is a perpetual necessity (this is in peacetime, we should recall, three years after the Civil War had ended) makes Lukács a very different socialist from, for example, Victor Serge, for whom repression might be necessary, but only if it was capable of justification on a strictly lapse-by-lapse basis.

The sixth and final section, “revolutionary realpolitik, opens with a critique of reformist social democracy. Lukács accuses parliamentary socialism of bad faith, of losing sight of its original goal of transformation and becoming lost in “everyday questions”, and of filling the gap between its promises and its action by a Utopianism, which anyone can recognise as dishonest. Not so Lenin, Lukács argues, who rejected all Utopianism for a relentless “realpolitik”, a constant focus on the “steps” that would enable workers to ascend from capitalism to socialism.

This method of constant “concrete analysis”, Lukács admits, is a process that is likely to give rise to “compromise” (at this point, it is worth grasping that the Bolshevik revolution’s economic programme in 1924 was still the NEP, a “compromise” with the peasantry”, made after the Civil War, which was won in part through a series of compromises with Tsarist generals, and treaties with imperialist states, at Brest-Litovsk, Rapallo, etc, the revolution itself was in a state of compromise, not creating a Utopia but struggling desperately to survive).

“When defining the concept of compromise,” Lukács writes, “any suggestion that it is a question of knack, of cleverness, of an astute fraud, must be rejected. ‘We must,’ said Lenin, ‘decisively reject those who think that politics consists of little tricks, sometimes bordering on deceit. Classes cannot be deceived.’” This is one of those paradoxical passages which seems right when you first read it but in the context of the text, and in the context of Lukács life, in fact provides something different from its surface meaning.

It is useful to go back a little in time. Published after he became a Bolshevik in November 1918, but written in the last few weeks before he joined the Communist Party, Lukács last non-Marxist journalism, “Bolshevism as a Moral Problem”, had confronted this same question previously: “Bolshevism”, he then wrote, “rests on the metaphysical notion that good can come from evil. That it is possible, as Razumkin says in Crime and Punishment, to lie our way to truth. This writer cannot share this faith, and hence, sees an insoluble moral dilemma at the root of Bolshevism.”

Now that was Lukács in 1918; he clearly did not hold quite the same position in 1924 (otherwise he would not have been a member of the Communist Party). He was struggling with the same problem admittedly, but doesn’t that one quotation from Lenin cut through the problem at a stroke, doesn’t it show that Lukács’ Lenin recognised that an immoral act produces immoral effects, and therefore that socialism would be accomplished through solidarity rather than deceit?

One difficulty is that those who met Lukács learned from him that he was not at all satisfied that Lenin’s prohibition on deceit in fact solved the “Moral Problem” he had identified in 1918. Here is Serge’s account of their discussions in exile: “Georg Lukács … once remarked to me, “Marxists know that dirty little tricks can be performed with impunity when great deeds are being achieved; the error of some comrades is to suppose that one can produce great results simply through the performance of dirty little tricks …”

And Serge again: “Lukács was a philosopher steeped in the works of Hegel, Marx and Freud, and possessing a free-ranging and rigorous mind. He was engaged in writing a number of outstanding books that were never to see the light of day. In him I saw a first-class brain that could have endowed Communism with a true intellectual greatness if it had developed as a social movement instead of degenerating into a movement in solidarity with an authoritarian power. Lukács’ thinking led him to a totalitarian vision of Marxism within which he united all aspects of human life; his theory of the Party could be taken as superb or disastrous depending on the circumstances…” (Memoirs of a revolutionary, 2012 edn, pp 218, 20).

The best evidence of course is the totality of Lukács’ pamphlet. By emphasising the centralised, selective, top-down notion of a party; by opposing the majoritarian instinct of bourgeois democracy and preferring to them the elitist conception of a party led by full-timers, substituting themselves for the rest of the party and of the class; by emphasising the moral utility of compromise (i.e. of an action in which there is by definition at least some tension with the supposed principles of the party making the compromise), what Lukács is arguing for is a conception of politics where compromises are general, not merely a necessary way of doing politics, but the highest form of Marxism, “The dialectically correct fusion of the general and the specific, the recognition of the general (in the sense of general historical tendencies) in the specific (in the concrete situation), and the resulting concretization of theory.”

From Lenin, Lukács does not take the short motto “do not lie to the class”, but the opposite conclusion, that by definition, classes cannot be deceived, and therefore any statement to the class, irrespective of its content, cannot be a lie.

There is of course a grandeur to Lukács tragedy. The pre-Marxist Lukács was capable of inspiring friendship in extraordinary people. On three occasion above all, during the Hungarian Soviet of 1919, in rediscovering Marx’s theory of alienation, and in siding with the uprising of 1956, he was more right than most of us will ever have the chance to be. His friend Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain, published in the same year as Lukács’ Lenin, uses him as the basis of the central character “Naphtha”, a Jesuit priest and an arch immoralist, who is also a Communist, a supporter of the labour theory of value, and an advocate of the abolition of all classes. Lukács, who always denied any similarity between Naphtha and himself, dubbed the character a “fascist”, and the term is not altogether inapt. Mann’s is an extraordinary book that pre-empts in art both Nazism and Stalinism.

In a 1965 essay, Alasdair Macintyre of the International Socialists, like Lukács a philosopher, but also then the editor of the magazine International Socialism (i.e. a Marxist committed to the very different project of socialism from below), sought to explain why it was that Lukács was unable to acknowledge himself in Naphtha: “The manifestly desperate character of Naphtha’s project corresponds to the latently desperate character of Lukács’ own enterprise. What is desperate and neurotic, of course, is not Lukács’ Communism or his wish to resolve with the contradictions of theory with the conceptual scheme of a new form of social life; it is his impatience with history, with the slow pace of social development. This he himself was to recognise, but his recognition of this impatience was turned into an acceptance of the subintellectual world of Stalinist materialism and thereby into a disowning of both the origin and meaning of his own enterprise.” (Blackledge and Davidson, eds, Alasdair Macintyre’s Engagement with Marxism, p 326).

This emphasis on the uselessness of get-rich quick schemes is helpful. It points to the very slow political perspectives of the old IS at its most creative (equipped as Macintyre and others were with Kidron’s Permanent Arms Economy, which, in its earliest formulations, put off the actuality of revolution for several decades).

It reminds us of the essential futility of any argument that the government, or capitalism, will be toppled if only the next conference is very big. (What after all if the conference is no bigger than the last; does that mean humanity is doomed for ever?) It points the way also to understanding why it is that Lukács’ Lenin, despite its flaws, never goes away. The same people who collapsed the branches in favour of the movement; who defeated the mood for direct action in the anti-war movement in favour of repetitive marches; who did their best to drive dissidents out of the movement – are still “in charge”. Their pond may be smaller, but they still rule it. And even the places that they have left still bear their imprint. The speakers still need a philosophy to justify their position. It is this characteristic of this pamphlet – Lukács political servility – which makes it so amenable to those who would practise top-down politics in our time.

[originally posted here]

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