The ‘Dialectics of Nature’ and the ‘free creation of history’ : Georg Lukács

Lukács was an important influence on what is called ‘western Marxism’. This was seen as a ‘humanist’ alternative to the dominant stalinist orthodoxy of the inter-War period and later. One of Lukács’ most significant arguments was that (contrary to Engels) there can be no dialectics of nature. Dan Morley examines the debate and goes into the contradictory relationship between Lukács’ interpretation of Marxism and Stalinism.

Georg Lukács
Georg Lukács

The ‘Dialectical Laws of History and Nature’ is a confusing and often daunting concept for new socialists to get their head around. In reading about this, people are often put off by the apparent rigidity and determinism of these ideas. Out of this misunderstanding, a whole school of pseudo-Marxist thought has developed, which plays a pernicious role in planting ideas alien to the labour movement by seeking to dumb-down or restrict Marxism. The name of Georg Lukács crops up as the hero of this petit-bourgeois reformism and cultural-criticism of ex-Marxists for having apparently restricted Marxism and taken it down a more limited, easier-to-swallow and somewhat less revolutionary juncture. Young students of Marxism can be led astray by his ‘humanism’ and emphasis on culture and the implied role of the individual. But in decapitating Marxism by removing its objective, scientific emphasis, its revolutionary role and practicality is blunted and turned into a tool fit only for petit-bourgeois sociology and cultural criticism. For these reasons this tendency must be combated.

The influence of these ideas began with Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness, published in 1923. Intended as an attack on ‘reification and reified thought’ (reification meaning his own understanding of alienation), it criticized Engels’ Anti-Duhring for attempting to show that dialectical laws applied to nature as well as human society. At the time, the book made little impact – the counter-attack of Zinoviev and others simply forced Lukács and his ideas underground. But ever since Stalinism’s victory and increased influence over Europe through the Warsaw Pact countries post World War Two, these ideas have made a comeback via the ‘humanist’ ‘western Marxism’ of various petit-bourgeois intellectuals. These well-fed interlopers sought to deny the importance of the working class struggle, reacting against the unfortunate burden of taking objective reality into account as well as the compulsion to live in the real world, as was implied by Engels’ theories, preferring to speak only of ‘culture’ and the need to change our spirit of thought before dealing with reality. Lukács’ theory’s influence over recent ‘Marxist’ thought in philosophy is akin to the ‘two-stages’ theory in politics, and must be shown to be alien from the genuine ideas of Marxism and the working class.

Lukács’ claim that the dialectical laws of human society and thought cannot be applied to nature is strange – it has no precedent in dialectical thought. Dialectics was originally developed by Ancient Greeks who thought, in a brilliant stroke of naïve intuition, that the forms of the natural world must be similar to those of their own thought; this tradition was continued by Hegel, who attempted to show that dialectics and science were compatible. This idea naturally sat well with Marx and Engels, who attempted to extract the ‘rational kernel’ from Hegel’s mysticism, to the extent that Engels wrote an entire book on this theme (Dialectics of Nature). The idea that dialectical laws have no reference to the objective world is therefore external to the history of dialectics itself.

Because Lukács and others wish to turn Marxism down a subjectivist, ‘cultural’ route, they must deny the objective orientation of Marxism. They can only do this by pointing to Engels works on science, because Engels lacks the authority of Marx (after all, it is called ‘Marxism’ not ‘Engelsism’!) and Marx did not write on these topics. But parts of Dialectics of Nature and all of Anti-Duhring were edited by Marx. However his direct influence over the former work is small, as he died as it was being written. Thus the materialist thesis of the book was finally proved correct when even this greatest of minds found itself at the mercy of the exacting reality of the material world! This irony is lost on the Lukácsians and other ‘humanists’ who try to show that because Engels, and not Marx, wrote about dialectics in nature, Marx must have been some old romantic interested only in society and culture! They forget that this is only because Marx was busy proving the importance of the material world by succumbing to it!

The idea that dialectics is a purely subjective logic has no basis in Marxism or the very real, objective experiences of the working class. It is a sudden break, not properly explained by Lukács. Rather he simply states it, not daring to bring out its essential idealist logic because it is one alien to Marxism. But despite its limitations (i.e. complete lack of any explanation or elucidation from Lukács) the idea caught on because it resonates with the idealist prejudices of the petit-bourgeois professors.

Lukács’ Adoption of Marxism

Georg Lukács was a Hungarian, born (in 1885) and brought up in Budapest, though his first language was German. He then moved to Germany to study in 1906, being taught sociology by Simmel and Weber (the former a petit-bourgeois sociologist and cultural critic, who incorporated aspects of Marxism, the latter a bourgeois sociologist and apologist for imperialism). Weber, who was consciously opposed to Marxism, exerted considerable influence on Lukács through his idealist (though not entirely useless) concept of the ‘ideal type’, and most particularly the idea that the laws of human society are determined fundamentally by ideas, which have no parallel or determinant in the natural world.

Lukács’ political consciousness in Hungary was from a young age that of the petit-bourgeois radical – he was the son of a wealthy banker, but the stultifying nationalism and chauvinism of the Austro-Hungarian regime led him to “reject them entirely and from an early age felt strongly opposed to ‘the whole of official Hungary'” (Parkinson, G.H.R., Georg Lukács, 1977, p.2). Because of the dynamics of the class struggle, this hatred inevitably led him into the arms of the Hungarian Social Democratic Party, the Communist Party of Hungary when it was set up in 1918, and of course the ideas of Marx and Engels. However, as a young petit-bourgeois intellectual he “did not immediately take the decisive step of becoming a Communist”. The events of the First World War radicalised him further, but because of his petit-bourgeois outlook they drove him into “a mood of acute depression”, regarding “the prospect of ultimate victory by Germany as a nightmare” (Ibid, p.4).

Of course, at this stage Lukács was still relatively young (during the First World War he was 29-33) and moods of despair, as well as indecision over whether to adopt Marxism, are perfectly understandable. However, Lukács, even when a Communist, never departed from this despairing mentality at the ‘decline of Western Civilization’, writing in 1952 the book The Destruction of Reason. His adoption of Marxism after the collapse of the Habsburg regime was sudden and suggests a sense of desperation and nowhere else to turn. His friend Anna Leznai said of Lukács’ conversion “Between one Sunday and the next, Saul became Paul.” (D. Kettler, 1971, p.35). This would suggest that there was little intellectual precedent for his sudden change, which is backed up by the moralistic, idealist basis of his earliest articles on Bolshevism – Bolshevism as a Moral Problem (1918), The Moral Basis of Communism (1919), Tactics and Ethics (1919), The Role of Morality in Communist Production (1919) and The Moral Mission of the Communist Party (1920).

All of these articles were written at the same time as, or only 1-3 years before, the articles that make up his criticism of Engels in History and Class Consciousness. He characterises the choice between reformism and revolution primarily as “a moral dilemma” (Parkinson, op. cit., p.5). Lukács openly stated that his motives for joining the Communists were ethical, and emphasised the Party’s ideals of brotherhood rather than its link to the material working class struggle. History and Class Consciousness‘ criticism of Engels is based not on the actual traditions of Marxism and the working class, but on his own particular interest in German Idealism, or ‘modern philosophy’, as he approvingly puts it,

“Modern philosophy sets itself the following problem: it refuses to accept the world as something that has arisen independently of the knowing subject [my emphasis] and prefers to conceive of it instead as its own product…the whole of modern philosophy has been preoccupied with this problem…there is a direct line of development whose central strand, rich in variations, is the idea that the object of cognition can be known by us for the reason that, and to the degree in which, it has been created by ourselves.” (Lukács, op. cit. pp.111-2)

So he objects to Engels’ Dialectics of Nature because it does not pay enough attention to Lukács’ interest in philosophy’s preoccupation with ‘knowing the object’, but only ever objects we have created. But are we not in turn created out of a pre-existing nature?

This is a classic approach to Marxism from the perspective of the petit-bourgeois intellectual who has not quite managed to escape the narrow outlook of his class – Marxism solves interesting philosophical questions, rather than ‘solving’ the class struggle and basing its philosophy on this. This is why Lukács is talked up so much by the professors of Philosophy. In later life Lukács correctly (if a little exaggeratedly) referred to his views circa History and Class Consciousness as ‘messianic utopianism’. The political journal Kommunismus, which he edited as he wrote History and Class Consciousness, “proclaimed a total break with all institutions which stemmed from the bourgeois world…Lukács said that Communists should not participate in bourgeois parliaments…the same messianic utopianism was expressed by his bookHistory and Class Consciousness” (Ibid, p.7).

This mechanical break from bourgeois society forgets that the working class also lives in bourgeois society, and reminds one of the naïve revolutionary idealism of Anarchist students, and should not be confused with a serious Marxist philosophy, as it often is (to the extent that Lukács is often touted with being a superior Marxist to Engels!). Lukács’ commitment to Communism was genuine, and he honourably engaged in warfare to defend the brief young Hungarian Soviet state from the Romanian invasion. However, his attack on Engels does not come from a genuine Marxist approach.

Following the initial criticism the book engendered from Zinoviev, Lukács immediately fell silent and ended up halting all political philosophy, concentrating on Literary Criticism. He heavily recanted his previous work, just as he recanted his (mild) revolutionary activities during the 1956 Hungarian uprising. He also refused criticism of Stalin and Stalinism, later admitted that although he did not agree with the censorships, ‘Leninism’ and the USSR were isolated and under threat from Fascism, and so any open criticism of Stalinist policies would lead directly into the hands of Fascism. This conformity directly parallels the Stalinist madness of declaring all other tendencies to be variations of Fascism (Trotskyist-Fascism, Social Fascism etc.). He even claimed that he could not leave the Communist party or stray from its line because staying in it was the only way to fight Fascism, when in fact the opposite was the case.

But the fact that his book History and Class Consciousness was criticised by apparent ‘hardliners’ and Stalinist ‘dogmatists’ like Zinoviev, and also the fact that it strays from Engels’ traditional Marxist scientific position, which is sometimes falsely associated with the dogmatic nature of Stalinism, lends support to the fantasy that Lukács’ argument that dialectics is purely human and not natural is some sort of innovative and open-minded advance for Marxism. But as we have seen, his view has its basis in his petit-bourgeois ‘intellectual’ prejudice that Marxism is fundamentally a moral theory that solves German Idealism on the grounds of idealism. This ‘messianic utopianism’ and misreading of Marx and Engels leads directly to his conformism to Stalinism, because both are based on the prejudices of the petit-bourgeoisie. Hence the similarity between his ‘total break’ from bourgeois parliaments, and Stalinism’s ‘total break’ from Social Democracy as apparently fascist, a position Lukács endorsed.

Commodity Fetishism and Reification

Lukács’ theory of ‘reification’, inspired by Marx’s idea of ‘Commodity Fetishism’, forms the theoretical basis for his criticism of Engels. We will need to understand the subtle differences between Marx and Lukács’ theories to clearly see the flawed basis for his attack on Engels.

Marx considered economics to be reducible to social relations. But in capitalist society social relations take the form of class relations based around producing commodities, that is products of human labour intended for exchange rather than consumption. Marx claims that out of this a false or distorted world outlook is created,

“This Fetishism of commodities has its origin…in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them. As a general rule articles of utility become commodities, only because they are products of the labour of private individuals or groups of individuals who carry on their work independently[my emphasis] of each other. The sum total of the labour of all these private individuals forms the aggregate labour of society. Since the producers do not come into social contact with each other until they exchange their products, the specific social character of each producer’s labour does not show itself except in the act of exchange…therefore, the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations [my emphasis] between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things.” (Marx, K. Capital, 1995, p.44)

Therefore, the fetishism of commodities consists of this: that the ‘aggregate labour of society’ cannot be theoretically, harmoniously unified. Marx clearly defines production as social – commodity production necessitates social production, or rather the social nature of production gives rise to commodity production. But seeing as the areas of production are carried on ‘independently of each other’ the social nature of production is not expressed directly, but is rather expressed through objects, specifically commodities. This distorted or indirect social production is the basis for the famous conclusion that in capitalist society the relations between people, as expressed in the ruling ideas of capitalism, appear distorted, and determined by the social relations between inhuman objects. If we then consider that Marx thinks labour to be the chief or even sole means by which we assert our relationship to the objective world, it becomes clear that seeing as each individual producer produces only a smallpart of an object – and is therefore not able to feel like he/she has any complete relationship to this object – they have almost no role whatsoever in the ‘aggregate labour of society’ and has had no part in the labour of the various objects he/she consumes.

We create capitalist society with all its social relations and economic laws, but it appears to us as something entirely separate from us.  We do not realize that, because humanity created it, we can abolish it in favour of a better society.  In explaining the fetishism of commodities, Marx uses the analogy of religion.  We create the gods, but we are not self-conscious of this fact and consequently conceive of them as distinct from us and as, ironically, our creators.  In contrast, bourgeois thought tries to convince us that capitalist society isnatural and consequently cannot be changed.

Therefore, the theoretical result of commodity production, according to Marx is that mankind’s theoretical knowledge, his conscious being, cannot be directly connected to the world of objects through labour. Theories of the objective world based on these premises therefore present objective, natural laws as independent of man in such a way that we cannot as a whole society adapt our practical, labour based behaviour to the theories’ results.

Although Lukács agrees on the nature of the social base for this problem, in contradistinction to Marx and Engels’ conclusion, Lukács believes “the reified subject of practice [i.e. the alienated individual] treats the product of its combined action with other similar subjects as a law-governed, objective reality.” (Feenberg, A. op. cit., p.125, my emphasis). The difference between the two theories is that whereas Marx and Engels depict alienated theories as unable to grasp the connection between man and the objective whole of society, Lukács considers alienated or reified theories as flawed because they treat the objects of our labour as ‘law-governed’ and constituting an ‘objective reality’.

One of the correct conclusions that Lukács draws from commodity fetishism is that the radicalised petit-bourgeoisie can find no way out, because it cannot grasp the whole movement of society. To this Marx and Engels would add that they feel alienated from the objective, natural world, which is in fact the fundamental condition for their existence. Lukács adds that this social position leads to idealist theories and an idealist response to the crisis of capitalism. Petit-bourgeois responses to capitalism, in which Lukács includes Anarchism, Utopianism, Reformism, Sectarianism and Opportunism, are characterised by either some sort of utopian, heavily moralistic or even mystical hope for a future, but one which has no worked out connection with today, or alternatively nihilistic, lonely and hopeless despair.

This characterisation is broadly correct, but it misses the larger point – the reason the petit-bourgeoisie swings from one extreme to another is because of its position in society – the individual (and the petit-bourgeoisie is an individualist, atomistic class) is determined by the vast objective world, but as an individual has no necessary role in this objective world. He/she needs the objective world, but the world does not need him/her. The idealist response of the petit-bourgeoisie not only cannot grasp the workings of capitalism, but also its relationship to nature which determines society.

Thus the impotence and idealism of their views. Idealism expresses the contradiction between individual experience of the material world, and the general, social ideas the individual has acquired. These ideas, such as morality, appear in the mind of the petit-bourgeois individual as powerful and yet detached from day-to-day experience of nature and society. For example, there are several petit-bourgeois responses to environmental problems which mystify the idea of nature in a ‘green’ society as some sort of abstract supreme conscious being, but on the basis of their ideology there is no clear way to get to this abstract ‘green’ society from ours. Thus the problem Lukács points out can only be understood if the petit-bourgeoisie is placed in the context of all of society and the objective world. Because he disagrees with doing this, because he sees dialectical materialism as only describing social laws and not that these laws are derived from those of nature, his theory cannot fully grasp the nature of petit-bourgeois activism.

The Entirely Mysterious ‘Identical Subject-Object of History’

It is the great irony of Lukács’ theory, and others like it, that in making the noisiest claims to overcoming petit bourgeois thought, it surrenders to it. It is like the man who hides something from his enemy in his enemy’s very house. ‘Perhaps if I spend half of my book belittling the petit-bourgeoisie, no one will notice the petit-bourgeois character of the whole book?’

Lukács criticises Engels’ attempt to show that dialectical laws are present in nature, because he thinks it treats nature as a separate entity to humanity, making us alienated from it. This is a strange view – evidently for dialectical logic, which after all is based on difference and contradiction, something can be different from something whilst also being fundamentally interconnected with it and a part of the same wider whole. Unsurprisingly, this strange turn of logic comes from Lukács’ principal interest in the development of German Idealism. In his mind, Hegel almost completed German Idealism by trying to solve its central contradiction – the unification of thought and being, or subject and object as Lukács puts it (I prefer thought and being because subject-object implies some sort of absolute difference between the two, whereas for Marxism the subject is an object, or is derived from objects). According to Lukács this unification must be achieved by ‘discovering’ the ‘identical (!) subject-object (?!) in history’, something which Hegel failed to do.

This is the sort of abstract jargon that today’s post-modern ex-Marxists love. What is this ‘subject-object’, and how is it ‘identical’? Identical to what? Does this mean that the subject (i.e. human thought, or as with Lukács the class-conscious proletariat) is identical to ‘the object’? What is the object then? If he means any one object, then he is making the proletariat ‘identical’ with particular objects, which is absurd. Presumably he means by object the whole of objective society, which would make the class-conscious proletariat at one with all of society. So it would be the only class, i.e. we would have a classless society. Therefore the proletariat would not actually exist as the proletariat (more on this contradiction later). But then, surely what lends society objectivity is that it is a part of the objectivity of nature, and conditioned by it? Surely therefore, the ‘identical-subject-object of history’ would be able to draw the correlation between its own laws, and the other objective laws of nature, which is exactly what Engels is doing?

Once again, Lukács’ criticism of Engels rests upon not Marxism but his own interest in solving the problems of German idealism as he sees it. Engels is wrong, not because he contradicts Marxism or the interests of the working-class, but because he does not pay his dues to the ‘identical-subject-object’ of idealism. Furthermore, Hegel never actually spoke of any ‘identical-subject-object of history’ anyway.

This theory that the class conscious proletariat represents the ‘identical-subject-object of history’ is particularly interesting because it shows the correlation between Lukács’ idealist, ‘humanist’ rejection of Engels, and his Stalinism. It is clear that, for Lukács, this ‘identical-subject-object of history’ means that the proletariat realises the truth of human existence, and it becomes fully self conscious. But because of Lukács’ idealism, this does not mean recognising our conditions of existence and consciously controlling them, but simply recognising that there are no conditions for our existence,

The idea that we have made reality loses its more or less fictitious character: we have…made our own history [my emphasis] and if we are able to regard the whole of reality as history (i.e. as our history, for there is no other [my emphasis]), we shall have raised ourselves in fact to the position from which reality can be understood as our ‘action.'” (Lukács, G., 1971, p.145)

The freedom or liberation of the proletariat therefore means absolute, abstract freedom, freedom to make history as we wish without any conditions, “what is not necessary is that the proletariat should act rationally. Whether or not it does so depends on its own free decision.” (Parkinson, op. cit., p.52). Here necessity is seen as something that corresponds to ‘law-governed, objective reality’ and not to the working class, that is to say the working class’ behaviour is seen as not a part of the objective world. Lukács clearly defines freedom as something independent of necessity, of objective laws.

“Nature is a societal category…nature’s form, its content, its range and itsobjectivity (my emphasis) are all socially conditioned.” (Ibid, p.234). The objective world is seen as incapable of being independent of thought. Of course, for Marxists what society means by nature is socially conditioned, and the nature we know is only ever the nature we have altered in relation to our interests. But this ignores the most fundamental point – that our interests are in the first place conditioned by nature. In a sense we could say that for Marx and Engels nature conditions society to condition nature.

This contradiction between the materialism of Marx and Engels and Lukács’ apparent subjectivism has not been lost on commentators. According to Feenberg “Lukács’ discussion of the principle of practice leans towards an idealistic concept of production as creation of the object. On these terms, the identity of subject and object implies the radical preeminance [sic] of the subject in the theoretical system.” (Feenberg, A., op. cit., p.124). Mészáros agrees “the thread of an unresolved duality leads, in one form or in another, through Lukács’ entire development.” (Mészáros, I., Lukács’ Concept of Dialectic, 1972, p.93) From the perspective of dialectical materialism, this leads to absurdity, because, as Lukács admitted 44 years later ‘objectivity is the primary material attribute of all things and relations’ (Lukács, 1967 Preface, xxxvi) and reality consists of the ‘interconnectedness of everything’. Therefore anything which interacts with this objective reality must be a part of it, and be interconnected with, dependent on and determined by other aspects of objective reality. This absurdity of Lukács’ position from the perspective of dialectical materialism is shown by Feenberg,

“One would have to imagine [in overcoming reification as Lukács describes it] an identical subject-object the actions of which would have no unintended consequences and which would encounter no contingencies in its environment requiring it to adjust and transcend the given. With the complete abolition of reification, no law of appearance would arise from the subject’s practice, which would, therefore, be able freely to create the (social) world according to its undetermined will.” (Feenberg, A., op. cit., p.242)

This absurdity is then shown by Marx and Engels also, who argue that without prior objective conditions, all action and thought become unnaturally bound to the object,

“Speculation on the one hand apparently freely creates its object a priori out of itself and, on the other hand, precisely because it wishes to get rid by sophistry of the rational and natural dependence on the object, falls into the most irrational and unnatural bondage to the object” (Marx, K. and Engels, F.The Holy Family, 1975, p.70)

The Political Results of Lukács’ subjectivism

Lukács’ understanding of the working class, then, is very much removed from reality. It is this freeing of the working class struggle from objective determinants that has made him so popular with petit-bourgeois reformists and revisionists. But what are the practical, political consequences of such an idealist position?

As we can see, this identical-subject-object represents an abstract philosophic conception of the class conscious and revolutionary working class. Not only this, it represents the working class when it has fully overcome all reification of thought through the total socialisation of the means of production, leading to a classless society – as reification comes about through the alienating effects of commodity production, class society and the division between mental and manual labour, the transcendence from reification requires a completely classless society with no divisions between mental and manual labour.

So any ‘identical-subject-object’ will have to correspond to the broad mass of the classless society. Only this ‘identical-subject-object’ can freely create history and natural laws, which is what Lukács understands by overcoming reification, because the working class as an actually existing class corresponds to reified conditions (i.e. wage labour, commodity production). So how does this reified class, which cannot ‘freely create history’, become this ‘identical-subject-object’ if it, being composed of alienated wage labourers, cannot ‘freely create history’ but only succumb to what is perceived as a ‘law-governed, objective totality’? How does a class that lives and is determined by the real, physical world, suddenly liberate itself from objective reality and freely construct its own subjective one?

This is the problem of idealism described above by Marx and Engels – in trying to escape the limitations of the objective world, it creates an abstract, subjective world, that cannot be connected to the real world, therefore it remains stuck in the real world, being blindly blown along by events, because it cannot connect the free world of its thoughts with the actual physical world.

This is exactly what happened to Lukács – he self-censored and bowed down to the Stalinist hierarchy. Summing up Lukács’ Stalinism, Kolakowski points to several of his later criticisms of Stalinism that clearly show he never diverted from the logic of bureaucratic centralism, even when attacking Stalin,

“In principle, Stalin was right as against Trotsky, but Stalin himself subsequently pursued a Trotskyist (!!!) policy instead of (!) a Leninist one” (Kolakowski, 1978, p.301) “he declared [in ‘Mein Weg zu Marx‘] that although he thought Stalin wrong on many points he did not engage in opposition…because any opposition could easily have degenerated into support for Fascism [despite the fact that Stalin’s policies evidently aided the rise of Fascism]” (p.303)

Unable to understand the objective course of events, and how this may lead to revolution, his subjectivist theory had to put its faith in the will of the subject – the Stalinist party. In History and Class Consciousness Lukács explicitly states that, according to his theory (and we must admit here that his logic is consistent with itself) the working class can never attain more than a ‘Trade Union consciousness’, and therefore needs the guiding hand of the revolutionary party, “It [the proletariat] cannot travel unaided.” (Lukács, op. cit. p.197). So much for the ‘identical-subject-object’ of the non-reified class conscious proletariat! Lukács, while spending most of his time exaggerating the role of the class-conscious working class into some sort of all-seeing-eye, then in practice reduces its role to that of a passive, localised and historically short sighted class.

The only way Lukács can unify this passive working class with his abstract ‘identical-subject-object’ is to assign the latter to the revolutionary party. Now we are beginning to see the political results of subjectivism in Marxism – arguing that dialectics cannot apply to nature, far from leading us away from the ‘dogmatic’ and ‘mechanically deterministic’ world of historical materialism, actually takes us right into the heart of Stalinist dogmatism.

Lukács often correctly criticizes Hegel for seeking some sort of idealist absolute – ‘World Spirit’ – to solve the problems of history instead of doing this materially and concretely. As a result, Lukács says, his theory is ultimately botched because its solution cannot be connected with actual, concrete history in any way. Often Lukács’ criticisms of idealist philosophy are very good. He is not all bad! But Lukács makes this same mistake, only with Marxist terminology, by ‘finding’ the solution to alienation in the abstract consciousness of the perfectly class-conscious proletariat. But this could only conceivably exist in a classless society, and is thus cut off from solving the problems of the proletariat here and now.

And this also mirrors Stalinism. Just as Stalinism was forced to maintain the public ownership of the means of production, but ultimately its own logic and social position eventually lead to the restoration of capitalism, so Lukács’ own idealist interpretation of Marxism, although correctly defending Marxism against its enemies, ultimately led to the development of the ‘Frankfurt School’ and the open capitulation to capitalism.

Lukács quite clearly and correctly states the political consequences of his subjectivism some years later,

“He [Lukács in 1933] said that the book’s [i.e. History and Class Consciousness] approach to its problems was that of philosophical idealism, not of materialism; it was also tainted with ‘subjectivist activism’, which means roughly that it assumed that revolutionary fervour could achieve anything, irrespective of social conditions. In 1934…he criticized the work still more severely, saying that the work’s idealism was not only theoretically false but also practically dangerous.” (Parkinson, op. cit. p.10)

In case anyone were in any doubt as to the similarity between the inherent subjectivism (coupled with its mechanical determinism, flipsides of the same coin) in Stalinism, and the subjectivism of the liberal-left ex-Marxists and post-modernists, Lukács’ own confession , lost in the deluge of the very same post-modern revisionism he here attacks, should leave one in no doubt,

“I sincerely did believe that History and Class Consciousness was mistaken and I think that to this day. When, later on, the errors enshrined in the book were converted into fashionable notions, I resisted the attempt to identify these with my own ideas and in this too I believe I was in the right.” (Lukács, 1967 preface, xxxviii)

His class-substitutionalism flows directly from his subjectivism straight into the Stalinist opportunism and popular-frontism, resulting in the victory of Hitler. Lukács’ logic is that of the petit-bourgeoisie’s lack of confidence in the working-class.

What Marx and Engels Really Thought

“The fact that our subjective thought and the objective world are subject to the same laws, and hence, too, that in the final analysis they cannot contradict each other in their results, but must coincide, governs absolutely our whole theoretical thought.” (Engels, F. Dialectics of Nature, 2007, p.270)

For Marx and Engels, the working class is the true revolutionary class precisely because it can take stock of its dependence on nature as a whole by socialising the productive forces. This explains the above statement – the working class cannot ‘transcend’ the objective world, but can understand how its behaviour and needs are determined by and dependent on the natural world. Hence the importance for Engels of writing the Dialectics of Nature. Above all else, the revolutionary working class must be sober-headed and objective in taking stock of its situation, it cannot afford to think it can ‘create’ history without due respect to the objective conditions,

“Bourgeois revolutions like those of the eighteenth century storm more swiftly from success to success, their dramatic effects outdo each other, men and things seem set in sparkling diamonds, ecstasy is the order of the day- but they are short-lived, soon they have reached their zenith, and a long Katzenjammer [crapulence] takes hold of society before it learns to assimilate the results of its storm-and-stress period soberly. On the other hand, proletarian revolutions like those of the nineteenth century constantly criticize themselves, constantly interrupt themselves in their own course, return to the apparently accomplished, in order to begin anew; they deride with cruel thoroughness the half-measures, weaknesses, and paltriness of their first attempts, seem to throw down their opponents only so the latter may draw new strength from the earth and rise before them again more gigantic than ever, recoil constantly from the indefinite colossalness of their own goals — until a situation is created which makes all turning back impossible, and the conditions themselves call out: Hic Rhodus, hic salta! [‘Here is Rhodes, jump here’, meaning ‘here is the difficulty, or ‘this is how we take power’]” (Marx, K. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852)

In the same work, Marx points out that “Men make their own history but they do not make it under conditions of their own choosing; they make it under circumstances directly transmitted from the past”. In case our Lukács inspired post-modernist cultural theorists are not quite clear on how Marx and Engels thought all human existence to be, let us quote one of their more striking comments on the question of human freedom,

“As a natural, embodied, sentient, objective being he [man] is a suffering, conditioned and limited being, like animals and plants. The objects of his drives exist outside himself as objects independent of him, yet they are objects of his needs, essential objects which are indispensable to the exercise and confirmation of his faculties.” (Marx, K. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, 1959 p.204)

But just because mankind finds itself constantly limited by nature, this does not make humanity some sort of mindless cipher being pushed and pulled by fixed laws.

“To me there could be no question of building up the laws of dialectics into nature, but of discovering them in it and evolving them from it.” (Engels, F.Anti-Duhring, 1947, p.19)

Engels is not subjectively creating laws to supposedly control and limit reality and human understanding of the natural laws that govern it, in the proscriptive manner of Judicial Laws, but is simply saying that objective laws describe rather than proscribe reality. Their ‘eternality’ derives from the fact that, if nature is objective, it must always behave in the same way only if given the same circumstances,

“We know that chlorine and hydrogen, within certain limits of temperature and pressure and under the influence of light, combine with an explosion to form hydrochloric acid gas, and as soon as we know this, we know also that this takes place everywhere and at all times where the above conditions are present, and it can be a matter of indifference, whether this occurs once or is repeated a million times.” (Engels, F. Dialectics of Nature, 2007, pp.237-8, my emphasis)

Thus Engels’ task as he sees it is not to find laws which determine a never ending repetition of the same events, but simply to show that given the same conditions we will always get the same outcome. Without this principle, human knowledge slips into the particular, and the regularity between and predictability of events appears fortuitous. Marx applies exactly the same method in analysing capitalism – without this principle, the course of development of capitalist society would appear arbitrary and unpredictable. It is for these reasons that Engels said he did not attempt to ‘build up the laws of dialectics into nature’. Instead he believes that to understand the necessary eternality of natural laws it is necessary to look at the particular conditions in each case to determine if certain laws apply, and how,

“In a manner exactly fixed for each individual case, qualitative changes can only occur by the quantitative addition or subtraction of matter or motion.” (Ibid, p.64, my emphasis)

The working class, in struggling for and winning freedom, is actually gaining knowledge of how it is determined by nature. Without this sober approach, the proletariat will never come to power, or at the very least would not be able to remould society and labour in accordance with natural laws,

“At every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.” (Ibid, p.183)

Hence the fact that both Marx and Engels sought the liberation of humanity not in heaven but in consciously controlling the means of production for all of society’s ends,

“This regulation [of the natural world], however, requires something more than mere knowledge. It requires a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production, and simultaneously a revolution in our whole contemporary social order.” (Ibid, p.184)

Consistent with the principle that humanity is a part of nature and determined by it, Engels has characterised freedom neither as pure, unlimited freedom, nor as non-existent. For Engels, humans are not passive, unconscious vessels for nature’s ‘eternal laws’, but conscious, active, practical beings, who, through labour, can grasp, master and exploit the laws of nature to their own ends.

In conclusion, Engels’ attempt at a dialectics of nature, that shows how the laws of human thought and society reflect those of nature, is based on the Marxist principle that nature precedes, determines and conditions mankind. Therefore according to the Marxist approach the only way for mankind to free itself is to uncover all of the hidden principles of nature and master them as a whole so that human society is no longer at the mercy of the blind laws of nature but in the hands of free, conscious humans. But freedom is not simply a matter of understanding the laws of nature.  That is a necessary element, but not sufficient.  Humans must also revolutionize society, get rid of capitalism, and establish a socialist society where people consciously and collectively determine their policies. In other words, within capitalist society we have gone a long way towards identifying the laws of nature, but we are hardly free since we do not control our own social relations but instead let them be determined by the laws of the market, etc.

Lukács’ Subjectivist Revisionism

We can now analyse how and why Lukács’ criticism of Engels differs fundamentally from the principles of dialectical materialism. Whereas a premise of this is that humanity or ‘subject’ is a part of the whole of nature (note that this is not to say that ‘subject’ is the same as nature, for nature constitutes all its various parts, such as planets, oceans, trees etc. as well as humanity; from the former things the ‘subject’ evidently differs) Lukács assumes at the outset that the ‘subject’ and the ‘object’ are two different things, as if standing side-by-side. In criticising Engels, Lukács claims that dialectical laws cannot be applied to nature as independent of ‘subject’ because dialectics is necessarily founded upon the interaction of ‘subject’ and ‘object’, “he [Engels] does not even mention the most vital interaction, namely the dialectical relation between subject and object in the historical process, let alone give it the prominence it deserves.” (Lukács, G. op. cit., p.3) Lukács makes this point even clearer in the notes to the essay quoted from above,

“The misunderstandings that arise from Engels’ account of dialectics can in the main be put down to the fact that Engels…extended the method to apply also to nature. However, the crucial determinants of dialectics – the interaction of subject and object…are absent from our knowledge of nature.” (Ibid, p.24)

The implication of the above must be that the ‘subject’ is in some way different from nature, otherwise we could not isolate a dialectics of society from an attempted dialectics of nature, i.e. Lukács is simply assuming that the ‘subject’ is different and not a part of nature in speaking about a fundamental difference between the interaction of subject and object and the interaction of two objects. But if humanity is a part of nature, then its interaction with other objects of nature is not absolutely different in principle from the interaction of two objects independent of humanity. Lukács’ language here equivocates from the principles of dialectical materialism in a subtle way. Whereas, as Lukács admitted 44 years later in his 1967 preface to History and Class Consciousness, Marx stated that “objectivity was the primary material attribute of all things and relations” (Ibid, xxxvi) Lukács speaks about ‘the subject’ as if it were not a part of this objectivity. But Marx shows that, as with Engels, dialectical materialism necessitates that mankind itself is an object,

“Man lives from nature – i.e., nature is his body – and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.” (Marx, K. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, 1959, my emphasis)

From one extreme to the other

A fundamental characteristic of bourgeois and petit-bourgeois thinking is to create false, absolute and mechanical dichotomies out of genuinely existing interrelated opposites, and then to swing from one side of this false dichotomy to the other. In reaction to the barbarism of Stalinism, such thinkers have falsely associated the dogmatism that goes with this with the materialism of Marx and particularly Engels. But the naïve response is equally dogmatic – to automatically flinch and recoil in a strange sort of intellectual snobbery from the realism and objectivism of Marxism. But if Stalinism was dogmatic because it did not understand nor want to understand genuine Marxism, only to repeat its stock phrases, sapping energy from its authority amongst the Russian people, then the stupid dogmatism of petit-bourgeois idealists who also do not want to understand genuine materialism is Stalinism’s mirror image.

In fleeing from the mechanical interpretation of Marxism, Lukács and his followers have done a great disservice to Marxism by pretending that their idealism represents the real meaning of Marx’s philosophy. Because their philosophy is at heart idealist and represents the outlook of petit-bourgeois intellectuals, the logic of their thoughts can ultimately only lead in one direction – capitulation to capitalism. Hence that those directly influenced by Lukács (particularly the Frankfurt School) have done exactly this, and spoke of the need to change one’s mind and ‘spiritual values’ before creating a new society. But we change the world and our ideas by labouring on the basis of necessity, not the ideological whims of professors.

Lukács said that the proletariat must not “take the world as it is” (Kolakowski, L.Main Currents of Marxism: The Breakdown, 1978, p.276). In the sense that for dialectics, no object remains as it is, this is true. But what is not true is that dialectical materialism considers ‘objective reality’ to be a subjective concept that can be bent at the will of the united and class-conscious proletariat. In order to overcome the limited and strictly ‘here-and-now’ psychology of an atomised capitalist society, the proletariat must grasp the world as it really is – the interconnection and constant flux of every objective thing based on definite objective laws. Furthermore, it must grasp its place amongst these laws of relations of objects, and show in practice that the whole of society is an expression of these laws, by consciously connecting mankind’s objective needs and wants with the material world and using those laws to suit its ends.


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