Adorno’s “Leninism” (Global Adorno conference audio recording)

Global Adorno conference panel: Post-Capitalism, Politics of the Concrete

Chris Cutrone


Presented on a panel with Marcel Stoetzler and Thomas Ogrisegg moderated by Johan Hartle at the Global Adorno conference at the University of Amsterdam, March 22, 2016.


(Cutrone presentation and discussion ~0:36:00 – ~1:06:00)


THE POLITICAL ORIGINS of Frankfurt School Critical Theory have remained opaque, for several reasons, not least the taciturn character of the major writings of its figures. The motivation for such reticence on the part of these theorists is itself what requires explanation: why they engaged in self-censorship and the encryption of their ideas, and consigned themselves to writing “messages in a bottle” without immediate or definite addressee. As Horkheimer put it, the danger was in speaking like an “oracle;” he asked simply, “To whom shall we say these things?” It was not simply due to American exile in the Nazi era or post-World War II Cold War exigency. Some of their ideas were expressed explicitly enough. Rather, the collapse of the Marxist Left in which the Critical Theorists’ thought had been formed, in the wake of the October 1917 Revolution in Russia and the German Revolution and civil war of 1918–19, deeply affected their perspective on political possibilities in their historical moment. The question is, in what way was this Marxism?

The series of conversations between Horkheimer and Adorno from 1956, at the height of the Cold War, provide insight into their thinking and how they understood their situation in the trajectory of Marxism since the early 20th century. The transcript was published in 2011 in English translation under the title Towards a New Manifesto. The German publication of the transcript, in Horkheimer’s collected works, is under the title “Discussion about Theory and Praxis,” and their discussion was indeed in consideration of rewriting the Communist Manifesto in light of intervening history. Within a few years of this, Adorno began but abandoned work on a critique of the German Social-Democratic Party’s Godesberg Programme, which officially renounced Marxism in 1959, on the model of Marx’s celebrated critique of the Gotha Programme that had founded the SPD in 1875. So, especially Adorno, but also Horkheimer, had been deeply concerned with the question of continuing the project of Marxism well after World War II. In the series of conversations between them, Adorno expressed his interest in rewriting the Communist Manifesto along what he called “strictly Leninist” lines, to which Horkheimer did not object, but only pointed out that such a document, calling for what he called the “re-establishment of a socialist party,” “could not appear in Russia, while in the United States and Germany it would be worthless.” Nonetheless, Horkheimer felt it was necessary to show “why one can be a communist and yet despise the Russians.” As Horkheimer put it, simply, “Theory is, as it were, one of humanity’s tools.” Thus, they tasked themselves to try to continue Marxism, if only as “theory.”

Now, it is precisely the supposed turning away from political practice and retreat into theory that many commentators have characterized as the Frankfurters’ abandonment of Marxism. For instance, Martin Jay, in The Dialectical Imagination, or Phil Slater, in his book offering a “Marxist interpretation” of the Frankfurt School, characterized matters in such terms: Marxism could not be supposed to exist as mere theory, but had to be tied to practice. But this was not a problem new to the Frankfurt Institute in exile, that is, after being forced to abandon their work in collaboration with the Soviet Marx-Engels Institute, for example, which was as much due to Stalinism as Nazism. Rather, it pointed back to what Karl Korsch, a foundational figure for the Institute, wrote in 1923: that the crisis of Marxism, that is, the problems that had already manifested in the era of the Second International in the late 19th century (the so-called “Revisionist Dispute”), and developed and culminated in its collapse and division in World War I and the revolutions that followed, meant that the “umbilical cord” between theory and practice had been already “broken.” Marxism stood in need of a transformation, in both theory and practice, but this transformation could only happen as a function of not only practice but also theory. They suffered the same fate. For Korsch in 1923, as well as for Georg Lukács in this same period, in writings seminal for the Frankfurt School Critical Theorists, Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg were exemplary of the attempt to rearticulate Marxist theory and practice. Lenin in particular, as Lukács characterized him, the “theoretician of practice,” provided a key, indeed the crucial figure, in political action and theoretical self-understanding, of the problem Marxism faced at that historical moment.

As Adorno put it to Horkheimer, “It could be said that Marx and Hegel taught that there are no ideals in the abstract, but that the ideal always lies in the next step, that the entire thing cannot be grasped directly but only indirectly by means of the next step.” Lukács had mentioned this about Lenin, in a footnote to his 1923 essay in History and Class Consciousness, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” that,

Lenin’s achievement is that he rediscovered this side of Marxism that points the way to an understanding of its practical core. His constantly reiterated warning to seize the “next link” in the chain with all one’s might, that link on which the fate of the totality depends in that one moment, his dismissal of all utopian demands, i.e. his “relativism” and his “Realpolitik:” all these things are nothing less than the practical realisation of the young Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach.

30 years later, Horkheimer and Adorno’s conversation in 1956 took place in the aftermath of the Khrushchev speech denouncing Stalin. This event signaled a possible political opening, not in the Soviet Union so much as for the international Left. Horkheimer and Adorno recognized the potential of the Communist Parties in France and Italy, paralleling Marcuse’s estimation in his 1947 “33 Theses”:

The development [of history since Marx] has confirmed the correctness of the Leninist conception of the vanguard party as the subject of the revolution. It is true that the communist parties of today are not this subject, but it is just as true that only they can become it. . . . The political task then would consist in reconstructing revolutionary theory within the communist parties and working for the praxis appropriate to it. The task seems impossible today. But perhaps the relative independence from Soviet dictates, which this task demands, is present as a possibility in Western Europe’s . . . communist parties.

Horkheimer and Adorno’s conversation in Towards a New Manifesto was part of a greater crisis of Communism (uprising in Hungary, emergence of the post-colonial Non-Aligned Movement, split between the USSR and Communist China) that gave rise to the New Left. Verso’s title was not misleading: this was the time of the founding of New Left Review, to which C. Wright Mills wrote his famous “Letter to the New Left” (1960), calling for greater attention to the role of intellectuals in social-political transformation.

As Adorno put the matter, “I have always wanted to . . . develop a theory that remains faithful to Marx, Engels and Lenin.” Horkheimer responded laconically, “Who would not subscribe to that?” It is necessary to understand what such statements took for granted.

The emphasis on Marxism as an account of “exploitation,” rather than of social-historical domination, is mistaken. Marx called “capital” the domination of society by an alienated historical dynamic of value-production (M–C–M’). At stake here is the proletarianization of bourgeois society after the Industrial Revolution, or, as Lukács put it in History and Class Consciousness (1923), how the fate of the workers becomes that of society as a whole. This went back to Marx and Engels in the 1840s: Engels had written a precursor to the Communist Manifesto, a “Credo” (1847), in which he pointed out that the proletariat, the working class after the Industrial Revolution, was unlike any other exploited group in history, in both its social being and consciousness. The danger was that the working class would mistake their post-Industrial Revolution condition for that of pre-industrial bourgeois society, with its ethos of work. As the Abbé Sieyès had put it, in his 1789 revolutionary pamphlet “What is the Third Estate?,” while the Church’s First Estate with its property of communion with Divinity “prays,” and the aristocratic Second Estate with its property of honor in noble chivalry “fights,” the commoner Third Estate “works,” with no property other than that of labor. Bourgeois society was the result of the revolt of the Third Estate. But the separate classes of increasing numbers of workers and ever fewer capitalists were the products of the division of bourgeois society in the Industrial Revolution, over the value of the property of labor, between wages and capital. This was, according to Marx, the “crisis” of bourgeois society in capital, recurrent since the 1840s.

At issue is the “bourgeois ideology” of the “fetish character of the commodity,” or, how the working class misrecognized the reasons for its condition, blaming this on exploitation by the capitalists rather than the historical undermining of the social value of labor. As Marx explained in Capital, the workers exchanged, not the products of their work as with the labor of artisans, but rather their time, the accumulated value of which is capital, the means of production that was the private property of the capitalists. But for Marx the capitalists were the “character-masks of capital,” agents of the greater social imperative to produce and accumulate value, where the source of that value in the exchange of labor-time was being undermined and destroyed. As Horkheimer stated it in “The Authoritarian State” (1940), the Industrial Revolution made “not work but the workers superfluous.” The question was, how had history changed since the earlier moment of bourgeois society (Adam Smith’s time of “manufacture”) with respect to labor and value?

Adorno’s affirmation of Lenin on subjectivity was driven by his account of the deepening problems of capitalism in the 20th century, in which the historical development of the workers’ movement was bound up. Adorno did not think that the workers were no longer exploited. See Adorno’s 1942 essay “Reflections on Class Theory” and his 1968 speech “Late Capitalism or Industrial Society?,” which he published in the U.S. under the title “Is Marx Obsolete?” In “Reflections on Class Theory,” Adorno pointed out that Marx and Engels’s assertion that the entire history of civilization was one of “class struggles” was actually a critique of history as a whole; that the dialectic of history in capital was one of unfreedom; and that only the complete dehumanization of labor was potentially its opposite, the liberation from work. “Late Capitalism or Industrial Society?” pointed out that the workers were not paid a share of the economic value of their labor, which Marx had recognized in post-Industrial Revolution capitalism was infinitesimal, but rather their wages were a cut of the profits of capital, granted to them for political reasons, to prevent revolution — a very Leninist idea. The ramifications of this process were those addressed by the split in the socialist workers’ movement — in Marxism itself — that Lenin represented.

The crisis of Marxism was grasped by the Frankfurt School in its formative moment of the 1920s. In “The Little Man and the Philosophy of Freedom” (in Dämmerung, 1926–31) Horkheimer explained how the “present lack of freedom does not apply equally to all. An element of freedom exists when the product is consonant with the interest of the producer. All those who work, and even those who don’t, have a share in the creation of contemporary reality.” This followed Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness, which prominently quoted Marx and Engels from The Holy Family (1845):

The property-owning class and the class of the proletariat represent the same human self-alienation. But the former feels at home in this self-alienation and feels itself confirmed by it; it recognizes alienation as its own instrument and in it possesses the semblance of a human existence. The latter feels itself destroyed by this alienation and sees in it its own impotence and the reality of an inhuman existence.

The necessary corrective was not the feeling of this oppression, but the theoretical and practical consciousness of the historical potential for the transformation of “bourgeois social relations,” at a global scale: “Workers of the world, unite!” This could only take place through the growth and greater accumulated historical self-awareness of the workers’ movement for socialism. But the growth of the workers’ movement had resulted in the crisis of socialism, its division into revolutionary Communism and reformist Social Democracy in WWI and the revolutions that followed (in Russia, Germany, Hungary and Italy). Reformist Social Democracy had succumbed to the “reification” of bourgeois ideology in seeking to preserve the workers’ interests, and had become the counterrevolutionary bulwark of continued capitalism in the post-WWI world. There was a civil war in Marxism. The question was the revolutionary necessity and possibility of Communism that Lenin expressed in the October 1917 Revolution that was meant to be the beginning of global revolution. Similarly, for the Frankfurt School, the Stalinism that developed in the wake of failed world revolution, was, contrary to Lenin, the reification of “Marxism” itself, now become barbarized bourgeois ideology, the affirmation of work, rather than its dialectical Aufhebung (negation and transcendence through fulfillment and completion).

To put it in Lenin’s terms, from What is to be Done? (1902), there are two “dialectically” interrelated — potentially contradictory — levels of consciousness, the workers’ “trade union” consciousness, which remains within the horizon of capitalism, and their “class consciousness,” which reveals the world-historical potential beyond capitalism. The latter, the “Hegelian” critical self-recognition of the workers’ class struggle, was the substance of Marxism: the critique of communism as the “real movement of history.” As Marx put it in his celebrated 1843 letter to Ruge, “Communism is a dogmatic abstraction . . . infected by its opposite, private property.” And, in his 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx stated unequivocally that,

Communism is the position as the negation of the negation, and is hence the actual phase necessary for the next stage of historical development in the process of human emancipation and rehabilitation. Communism is the necessary form and the dynamic principle of the immediate future, but communism as such is not the goal of human development, the form of human society.

For Marx, communism demanded an “immanent critique” according to its “dialectical” contradictions, heightened to adequate historical self-awareness.

The issue is the potential abolition of wage-labor by the wage-laborers, the overcoming of the social principle of work by the workers. Marx’s “Hegelian” question was, how had history made this possible, in theory and practice?

While Horkheimer and Adorno’s historical moment was not the same as Marx’s or Lenin’s, this does not mean that they abandoned Marxism, but rather that Marxism, in its degeneration, had abandoned them. The experience of Communism in the 1930s was the purge of intellectuals. So the question was the potential continued critical role of theory: how to follow Lenin? In “Imaginative Excesses” (orphaned from Minima Moralia 1944–47 — the same time as the writing of Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment), Adorno argued that the workers “no longer mistrust intellectuals because they betray the revolution, but because they might want it, and thereby reveal how great is their own need of intellectuals.”

Adorno and Horkheimer are thus potentially helpful for recovering the true spirit of Marxism. Their work expresses what has become obscure or esoteric about Marxism. This invites a blaming of their work as culpable, instead of recognizing the unfolding of history they described that had made Marxism potentially irrelevant, a “message in a bottle” they hoped could still yet be received. It is unfortunate if their work isn’t. | §

Chris Cutrone

Chris Cutrone is a college educator, writer, and media artist, committed to critical thinking and artistic practice and the politics of social emancipation. ( . . . )

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Proletarian dictatorship and state capitalism

The meaning of political party for the Left

Chris Cutrone

Originally published in Weekly Worker 1064 (June 25, 2015). [PDF]

Tamás Krausz’s recent book Reconstructing Lenin (2015) notes the foundational opposition by Lenin to ‘petty bourgeois democracy’ – Lenin’s hostility towards the Mensheviks was in their opportunistic adaptation to petty bourgeois democracy, their liquidation of Marxism.

The real objects of Lenin’s political opposition in proletarian socialism were the Narodniks and their descendants, the Socialist Revolutionaries, who were the majority of socialists in Russia in 1917. The SRs included many avowed ‘Marxists’ and indeed supported the ‘vanguard’ role of the working class in democratic revolution. The split among the SRs over World War I is what made the October revolution in 1917 possible – the alliance of the Bolsheviks with the Left SRs.

Conversely, the collapse of that alliance in 1918, due to the Bolsheviks’ policy of pursuing a peace treaty with Germany at Brest-Litovsk, led to the Russian civil war. The SRs, calling for a “third Russian revolution”, remained the most determined enemies of the Bolsheviks, all the way up through the Kronstadt mutiny of 1921, calling for “soviets without political parties”: ie, without the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks considered them ‘petty bourgeois democrats’ and thus ‘counterrevolutionaries’. As Engels had already foretold, opposition to proletarian socialism was posed as ‘pure democracy’. It was ‘democracy’ versus the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.

Hal Draper’s four-volume Marx’s theory of revolution (1977-90) similarly finds Marx’s essential lesson of 1848 in the need to oppose proletarian socialism to petty bourgeois democracy. In the democratic revolution “in permanence” the proletariat was to lead the petty bourgeoisie.

What has happened since Marx and Lenin’s time, however, has been the opposite: the liquidation of proletarian socialism in petty bourgeois democracy, and the workers’ acceptance of the political lead of the latter – what Trotsky in the 1930s called the “crisis of revolutionary leadership”, the result of the self-liquidation of Marxism by Stalinism in the popular front. Today, the left is characterised by the utter absence of proletarian socialism and the complete domination of politics by what Marxism termed petty bourgeois democracy.

This did not, however, prevent Marx – and Lenin, following him – from endorsing the ‘bourgeois democratic revolution’, which remained necessary not only in apparently holdover feudal-aristocratic states, such as Germany in 1848 or Russia in 1905 and 1917, but also in the US Civil War of 1861-65 and the Paris Commune of 1871. This is because capitalism in the 19th century was a crisis undermining the bourgeois revolution begun in the 16th-17th centuries (in the Dutch Revolt and English Civil War).

The question is, what is the relation between the task of the still ongoing bourgeois democratic revolution, the contradiction of capital and the struggle for socialism? How has Marxism regarded the problem of ‘political action’ in modern society?

Programme

Mike Macnair’s four-part series on the “maximum programme” of communism – ‘Thinking the alternative’ Weekly Worker April 9, 16 and 30 and May 14 2015 – argues for the need “to proletarianise the whole of global society”. Macnair means this more in the political than economic sense. So what is the proletariat as a political phenomenon, according to Marxism? Georg Lukács, following Marx, however, would have regarded the goal of the complete ‘proletarianisation of society’ precisely as the ‘reification’ of labour: ie, a one-sided opposition and hypostatisation that Macnair articulates as the proletariat’s “denial of property claims” of any kind. But this leaves aside precisely the issue of ‘capital’ in Marx’s sense: the self-contradictory social relation of the workers collectively to the means of production, which for Marxism is not reducible to the individual capitalists’ property.

‘Capital’, in Marx’s sense, and the petty proprietorship of shopkeepers, for example, let alone the personal skills of workers (either ‘manual’ or ‘intellectual’), are very different phenomena. Macnair addresses this issue in the final, fourth part of his series, ‘Socialism will not require industrialisation’ (Weekly Worker May 14 2015), which clarifies matters as regards his view of wage-labour, but not with respect to capital specifically as the self-contradiction of wage-labour in society. Moreover, there is the issue of how capital has indeed already ‘proletarianised the whole of global society’, not only economically, but also politically. This cuts to the heart of what Marx termed ‘Bonapartism’.

Macnair’s “maximum programme”, if even realisable at all, would only reproduce capitalism in Marx’s sense. Whereas, for Marx, the proletariat would begin to abolish itself – ie, abolish the social principle of labour – immediately upon the workers taking political power in their struggle for socialism. If not, then petty bourgeois democracy will lead the lumpenproletariat against the workers in Bonapartist politics, typically through nationalism – a pattern seen unrelentingly from 1848, all the way through the 20th century, up to the present. It has taken the various forms of fascism, populism, ethno-cultural (including religious) communalism (eg, fundamentalism), and Stalinist ‘communism’ itself. How have the workers fared in this? They have been progressively politically pulverised and liquidated, up to today.

Marxism’s political allegiance to the working class was strategic, not principled. What Marxism expressed was the socialist intelligentsia’s recognition of the ‘necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat’ as a means to achieve socialism, not as an abstract utopia, but rather, as Lenin put it, “on the basis of capitalism itself”, and thus the necessary “next stage” of history.

This is because capitalism produces not only proletarianised workers, but also their opposite: a reserve army of lumpenised unemployed to be used against them – not merely economically, but also politically – as fodder for petty bourgeois demagogy and objects of capitalist technocratic manipulation, but also as enraged masses of capitalism’s discontented. If the working class in revolution would open its ranks to all and thus abolish the lumpenproletariat as well as the petty bourgeoisie through universalising labour, then this would be a civil war measure under socialist leadership, to immediately attack and dismantle the valorisation process of capital, as well as to mobilise the masses against competing petty bourgeois democratic leadership: it will not be as a new, ostensibly emancipatory principle of society. It would be rather what Lukács dialectically considered the “completion of reification” that would also lead potentially to its “negation”. It would be to raise to the level of conscious politics what has already happened in the domination of society by capital – its ‘proletarianisation’ – not to ideologically mystify it, as Macnair does in subsuming it under the democratic revolution, regarded as ‘bourgeois’ or otherwise.

But this can only ever happen at a global and not local scale, for it must involve a predominant part of the world working class asserting practical governing authority to be effective. This would be what Marxism once called the “proletarian socialist revolution”. But it would also be, according to Marx and Lenin, the potential completion of the bourgeois democratic revolution, going beyond it. This ambivalent – ‘dialectical’ – conception of the proletarian socialist revolution as the last phase of the bourgeois democratic revolution that points beyond it has bedevilled ‘Marxists’ from the beginning, however much Marx was clear about it. Lenin’s and Trotsky’s practical political success in October 1917 was in pursuing the necessity Marx had recognised. However, consciousness of that original Marxist intention has been lost.

Democracy

This must be ideologically plausible as ‘socialism’, not only to the workers, but to the others they must lead politically in this struggle. That means that socialism must be as compelling ideologically as the working class is politically organised for the dictatorship of the proletariat – what Marx called “winning the battle of democracy”. Note well that this was for Marx the battle of democracy, which he took to be already established, and not the battle ‘for’ democracy as some yet unattained ideal. For Marx democracy was constitutive of the modern state in bourgeois society and capitalism: hence his statement that the “secret of every constitution is democracy” – a notion Marx had in common with bourgeois revolutionary thought going back to Machiavelli, but especially with respect to Locke and Rousseau. ‘Socialism’, as the phenomenon of a new need in capitalism, must win the battle of the democratic revolution. The political party for socialism would be the means by which this would take place.

The issue is whether we are closer to or rather further away from the prospect of socialism today, by contrast with a hundred years ago. If socialism seems more remote, then how do we account for this, if – as Macnair, for instance, asserts – we have already achieved socially what Marx demanded in the Critique of the Gotha programme? The return to predominance of what Marx considered Bonapartism through petty bourgeois democracy after the liquidation of proletarian socialism in the early 20th century would seem to raise questions about the ‘progress’ of capitalism and of the very social conditions for politics. Have they advanced? It could be equally plausible that conditions have regressed, not only politically, but socially, objectively as well as subjectively, and that there has been a greater divergence of their interrelation by comparison to past historical moments, especially the revolutionary crisis of 1914-19.

The question, then, would be if the necessity of Marx’s ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ has been overcome or rather deepened. Redefining the dictatorship of the proletariat, as Macnair, along with many others, has tried to do, will not suffice to address adequately the issues raised by consideration of historical Marxism, specifically how Marxists once regarded the workers’ movement for socialism itself, as well as capitalism, as self-contradictory. And, most pointedly, how Marxism considered capitalism and socialism to be ‘dialectically’ intertwined, inextricably – how they are really two sides of the same historical phenomenon – rather than seeing them as standing in undialectical antithesis.

The task posed by capitalism has been for proletarian socialism to lead petty bourgeois democracy, not adapt to it. The classic question of politics raised by Lenin – ‘Who-whom?’ (that is, who is the subject and who is the object of political action) – remains: the history of the past century demonstrates that, where ostensible Marxists leading proletarian socialist parties have tried to use the petty bourgeois democrats, really the latter have used – and then ruthlessly disposed of – them.

So let us return to Marx’s formulation of the problem and retrace its history – for instance, through the example of the revolutionary history of the US.

Dictatorship

In a letter of March 5 1852, Marx wrote to Joseph Weydemeyer that his only original contribution had been recognising the necessity of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. Bourgeois thought, Marx wrote, had already recognised the existence and the struggle of classes: indeed, the existence and struggle of classes – the struggle of the workers against the capitalists – had been recognised by bourgeois thought in terms of liberalism. Recognition of the class struggle was an achievement of liberal thought and politics. Marx thought that socialists had fallen below the threshold of liberalism in avoiding both the necessity of the separation of classes in capitalism and the necessity of the class struggle resulting from that division of society. Socialists blamed the capitalists rather than recognising that they were not the cause, but the effect, of the self-contradiction of society in capitalism.1 So Marx went beyond both contemporary liberal and socialist thought in his recognition of the historical necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat revealed by capitalism.

Marx wrote this letter in the wake of the coup d’état by Louis Bonaparte and his establishment of the Second Empire. It was the culmination of Marx’s writings on the 1848 revolution and its aftermath. Weydemeyer was Marx’s editor and publisher for his book on The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.

Later, in his writings on the Paris Commune in The civil war in France, Marx summarised the history of Louis Bonaparte’s Second Empire in terms of its being the dialectical inverse of the Commune, and wrote that the Commune demonstrated the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in action. How so?

Marx’s perspective on post-1848 Bonapartism was a dialectical conception with respect to the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat that Bonapartism expressed. This was why it was so important for Marx to characterise Louis Bonaparte’s success as both ‘petty bourgeois’ and ‘lumpenproletarian’, as a phenomenon of the reconstitution of capitalism after its crisis of the 1840s. Bonaparte’s success was actually the failure of politics; and politics for Marx was a matter of the necessity of the class struggle of the workers against the capitalists. Bonapartism was for Marx a ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie’ – not in the sense of the rule of the capitalists, but rather in terms of the political necessity of the state continuing to organise capitalism on a bourgeois basis and the imperative for doing so after the capitalists had lost the ability to lead through civil society. After all, as Marx put it in The 18th Brumaire, in Bonaparte’s coup, “bourgeois fanatics for order [were] shot down on their balconies in the name of … order”. It was a ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie’ in the sense that it did for them what they could not.

The crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism ran deep. Marx wrote:

Every demand of the simplest bourgeois financial reform, of the most ordinary liberalism, of the most formal republicanism, of the most insipid democracy, is simultaneously castigated as an ‘attempt on society’ and stigmatised as ‘socialism’ (18th Brumaire).

It was in this sense that the Bonapartist police state emerging from this crisis was a travesty of bourgeois society: why Louis Bonaparte was for Marx a “farcical” figure, as opposed to his uncle Napoleon Bonaparte’s “tragedy” in the course of the Great Revolution. Where Napoleon tried to uphold such bourgeois values, however dictatorially, Louis Bonaparte and others who took their cue from him after 1848 abjured them all. 1848 was a parody of the bourgeois revolution and indeed undid it. The “tragedy” of 1848 was not of bourgeois society, but of proletarian socialism: Marx described the perplexity of contemporaries, such as Victor Hugo, who considered Bonapartism a monstrous historical accident and, by contrast, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who apologised for it as some expression of historical necessity, even going so far as to flirt with Louis Bonaparte as a potential champion of the working class against the capitalists – a dynamic repeated by Ferdinand Lassalle in Germany with respect to Bismarck, earning Marx’s excoriation. Marx offered a dialectical conception of Bonapartism.

State capitalism

Frankfurt Institute for Social Research director Max Horkheimer’s essay on ‘The authoritarian state’ was inspired by Walter Benjamin’s ‘Theses on the philosophy of history’, which were his draft aphorisms in historiographic introduction to the unwritten Arcades project, concerned with how the history of the 19th century prefigured the 20th: specifically, how the aftermath of 1848 was repeating itself in the 1920s-30s, the aftermath of failed revolution from 1917-19; how 20th century fascism was a repeat and continuation of 19th century Bonapartism. So was Stalinism.

Horkheimer wrote that the authoritarian state could not be disowned by the workers’ movement or indeed separated from the democratic revolution more broadly. It could not be dissociated from Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat, but could only be understood properly dialectically with respect to it. The authoritarian state was descended from the deep history of the bourgeois revolution, but realised only after 1848: only in the crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism, which made the history of the bourgeois revolution appear in retrospect rather as the history of the authoritarian state. What had happened in the meantime?

In the 20th century, the problem of the Bonapartist or authoritarian state needed to be addressed with further specificity regarding the phenomenon of ‘state capitalism’. What Marx recognised in the ‘necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat’ was the same as that of state capitalism in Bonapartism. Hence, the history of Marxism after Marx is inseparable from the history of state capitalism, in which the issue of the dictatorship of the proletariat was inextricably bound up. Marx’s legacy to subsequent Marxism in his critique of the Gotha Programme (1875) was largely ignored.

The question is how the Lassallean Social Democratic Workers’ Party that Marx’s followers joined in Bismarckian Germany was a state capitalist party, and whether and how Marx’s followers recognised that problem: would the workers’ party for socialism lead, despite Marxist leadership, to state capitalism rather than to socialism? Was the political party for socialism just a form of Bonapartism?

This is the problem that has beset the left ever since the crisis of proletarian socialism over a hundred years ago, in World War I and its aftermath. Indeed, Marxism has seemed to be haunted by this historical verdict against it, as state capitalism, and so disqualified forever as a politics for emancipation.

Marxism fell apart into mutual recriminations regarding its historical failure. Anarchists and council communists blamed ‘Leninism’; and ‘Leninists’ returned the favour, blaming lack of adequate political organisation and leadership for the grief of all spontaneous risings. Meanwhile, liberals and social democrats quietly accepted state capitalism as a fact, an unfortunate and regrettable necessity, to be dispensed with whenever possible. But all these responses were in fact forms of political irresponsibility, because they were all avoidance of a critical fact. Marx’s prognosis of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ still provoked pangs of conscience and troubling thoughts. What had Marx meant by it?

We should be clear: state capitalism in the underdeveloped world was always a peripheral phenomenon; state capitalism in the core, developed, capitalist countries posed the contradiction of capitalism more acutely, and in a politically sharpened manner. What was the political purpose of state capitalism in post-proletarian society? Rather than in ‘backward’ Russia or China and other countries undergoing a process of industrialising-proletarianising. Socialism was not meant to be a modernising capitalisation project. And yet this is what it has been. How did socialism point beyond capitalism?

Neoliberalism

Organised capitalism relying on the state is a fact. The only question is the politics of it. Lenin, for one, was critically aware of state capitalism, even if he can be accused of having allegedly contributed to it. The question is not whether and how state capitalism contradicts socialism, but how to grasp that contradiction dialectically. A Marxist approach would try to grasp state capitalism, as its Bonapartist state, as a form of suspended revolution; indeed, as a form of suspended ‘class struggle’. The struggle for socialism – or its absence – affects the character of capitalism. Certainly, it affects the politics of it.

A note on neoliberalism. As with anything, the ‘neo’ is crucially important. It is not the liberalism of the 18th or even the 19th century. It is a form of state capitalism, not an alternative to it. Only, it is a form of politically irresponsible state capitalism. That is why it recalls the Gilded Age of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the era of ‘imperialism’, of the imperial – Bonapartist – state. However, at that time, there was a growing and developing proletarian movement for socialism, or ‘revolutionary social democracy’, led by Marxists, in nearly all the major capitalist countries. Or so, at least, it seemed.

Historically, Marxism was bound up with the history of state capitalism, specifically as a phenomenon of politics after the crisis of 1873. For this reason, the history of capitalism is impacted by the absence of Marxism 100 years later, today, after the crisis of 1973.2 After 1873, in the era of the second industrial revolution, there was what Marxists once called the ‘monopoly capitalism’ of global cartels and financialisation, organized by a world system of states, which Marxists regarded as the ‘highest (possible) stage of capitalism’. It was understood as necessarily bringing forth the workers’ movement for socialism, which seemed borne out in practice: the history from the 1870s to the first decades of the 20th century demonstrated a growth of proletarian socialism alongside growing state capitalism.

Rosa Luxemburg pointed out – against social democratic reformists, who affirmed this workers’ movement as already in the process of achieving socialism within capitalism – that “the proletariat … can only create political power and then transform [aufheben] capitalist property”. That Aufhebung – the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ – would be the beginning, not the “end”, of the emancipatory transformation of society. As Michael Harrington noted, drawing upon Luxemburg and Marx, “political power is the unique essence of the socialist transformation”.3 It is this political power that the ‘left’ has avoided since the 1960s.

History

In the US, the liberal democratic ideal of Jeffersonian democracy, the idyll of the American Revolution, was shattered by the crack of the slave whip – and by the blast of the rifle shot to stop it. Jefferson had tried to call for abolition of slavery in his 1776 Declaration of Independence, accusing British policy of encouraging slavery in the colonies, but the Continental Congress deleted the passage. Jefferson fought against slavery his entire political life. Towards the end of that life, in a letter of August 7 1825, Jefferson wrote to the abolitionist, women’s rights activist and utopian socialist, Frances Wright, supporting her founding the Nashoba Commune in Tennessee for the emancipation of slaves through labour:

I do not permit myself to take part in any new enterprises, even for bettering the condition of man, not even in the great one which is the subject of your letter [the abolition of slavery], and which has been thro’ life that of my greatest anxieties. The march of events has not been such as to render its completion practicable within the limits of time allotted to me; and I leave its accomplishment as the work of another generation. and I am cheered when I see that on which it is devolved, taking it up with so much good will, and such mind engaged in its encouragement. The abolition of the evil is not impossible: it ought never therefore to be despaired of. Every plan should be adopted, every experiment tried, which may do something towards the ultimate object. That which you propose is well worthy of trial. It has succeeded with certain portions of our white brethren, under the care of a [Christian communist George] Rapp and an [utopian socialist Robert] Owen; and why may it not succeed with the man of colour?4

Jefferson’s election to president in 1800, through which he established the political supremacy of his new Democratic-Republican Party, was called a ‘revolution’, and indeed it was. Jefferson defeated the previously dominant federalists. What we now call the Democratic Party, beginning under Andrew Jackson, was a split and something quite different from Jefferson. The Republican Party, whose first elected president in 1860 was Abraham Lincoln, was a revolutionary party, and in fact sought to continue the betrayed revolution of Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans. The Republicans came out of the destruction of the Whig party, which produced a revolutionary political crisis leading to the Civil War. They were the party of the last great political revolution in American politics, the Civil War and Reconstruction under Ulysses S (‘Unconditional Surrender’) Grant that followed. Its failure demonstrated, as the revolutions of 1848 had done in Europe, the limits of political and social revolution in capitalism: it showed the need for socialism.5

The last major crisis of US politics was in the 1960s ‘New Left’ challenge to the ruling Democratic Party’s New Deal coalition that had been the political response to the 1930s great depression.6 In the 1930s Franklin D Roosevelt had disciplined the capitalists in order to save capitalism, subordinating the working class to his efforts. He thus remade the Democratic Party. Trotsky, for one, considered FDR New Dealism, along with fascism and Stalinism, despite great differences, a form of “Bonapartism”.7 The crisis of the 1960s was essentially the crisis of the Democratic Party, challenged by both the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war. The Republicans, first led by Richard Nixon in 1968 then by Ronald Reagan in 1980, were the beneficiaries of that crisis. Both the 1930s and 1960s-70s, however, fell below the standard of Radical Republicanism in the 1860s-70s, which was the most democratic period in US history. It is something less than ironic that the Democrats, considered the ‘left’ of the American political party system, have been the most acutely counterrevolutionary of Bonapartist parties. This despite Democratic Party presidential candidate John F Kennedy’s declaration on October 12 1960 that the strife of the 20th century – expressed by the cold war struggles of communism and decolonisation – was an extension of the American Revolution to which the US needed to remain true.8

The history of the state in the modern era is inextricable from the politics of revolution.9 The crisis of the state is always a crisis of political parties; crises of political parties are always crises of the state. The crisis of the state and its politics is a phenomenon of the crisis of capitalism.

The question of left and right is a matter of the degree of facilitation in addressing practically and with consciousness the problem of capitalism, and the problem of capitalism is inextricable from the state.

Regression

Politics today tends to be reduced to issues of policy, of what to do, neglecting the question of who is to do it. But this is depoliticising. Politics is properly about the matter of mobilising and organising people to take action: their very empowerment is at least as important as what they do with it. Marxism never identified itself directly with either the working class or its political action, including workers’ revolution and any potential revolutionary state issuing from this.10 But Marxism advocated the political power of the working class, recognising why the workers must rule society in its crisis of capitalism. Marxism assumed the upward movement of this trend from the 1860s into the early 20th century. But, in the absence of this, other forces take its place, with more or less disastrous results. After 1919 matters have substantially regressed.

Marxism recognised the non-identity of socialism and the working class. ‘Revolutionary social democracy’ of the late 19th century, in its original formulation by Bebel and Kautsky, followed by Lenin and Luxemburg, was the union of the socialist ideological movement of the revolutionary bourgeois intelligentsia with the workers in their class struggle against the capitalists.11 For Marxism ‘politics’ is the class struggle. For Marx, the capitalists are only constituted as a class through opposing the working class’s struggle for socialism (see Marx’s 1847 The poverty of philosophy). Otherwise, as Horkheimer recognised, there is no capitalist class as such, but competing rackets. Adam Smith, for instance, had recognised the need for the workers to collectively organise in pursuit of their interests; Smith favoured high wages and low profits to make capitalism work. Marx’s critique of political economy was in recognition of the limits of bourgeois political economy, including and especially that of the working class itself. Marx was no advocate of proletarian political economy, but its critic.

The antagonism of workers against the capitalists is not itself the contradiction of capital. However, it expresses it.12 The goal of socialism is the abolition of political economy, not in terms of the overthrowing of the capitalists by the workers, but the overcoming of and going beyond the principle of labour as value that capital makes possible.13 The question is how the potential for socialism can transcend the politics of capitalism – can emerge out from the class struggle of the workers against the capitalists – that otherwise reconstitutes it.

Rejecting

A political party is necessary to preserve the horizon of proletarian socialism in capitalism over time. Otherwise, the workers will have only consciousness of their interests that reproduces capitalism, however self-contradictorily. A political party is necessary for class struggle to take place at all. According to Marx, the democratic republic is the condition under which the class struggle in capitalism will be fought out to completion; and the only possibility for the democratic republic in capitalism is the dictatorship of the proletariat, or a revolutionary workers’ state.

Such a revolutionary politics would be concerned not with the whether, but only the how, of socialism. It will be marked by great social strife and political struggle, with competing socialist parties. Its purpose will be to make manifestly political the civil war of capitalism that occurs nonetheless anyway. We are very far from such a politics today.

The notion of politics apart from the state, and of politics apart from parties is a bourgeois fantasy – precisely a bourgeois fantasy of liberal democracy that capitalism has thrown into crisis and rendered obsolete and so impossible. Capitalism presents a new political necessity, as Marx and his best followers once recognised. Anarchism is truly ‘liberalism in hysterics’ in denying the necessity of politics, in denying the need for political party. Neo-anarchism today is the natural corollary to neoliberalism.

In the absence of a true left, politics and the state – capitalism – will be led by others. In the absence of meeting the political necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat, we will have more or less, hard or soft, and more or less irresponsible capitalist state dictatorship. We will have political irresponsibility.

To abandon the task of political party is to abandon the state, and to abandon the state is to abandon the revolution. It is to abandon the political necessity of socialism, whose task capitalism presents. It is to abandon politics altogether, and leave the field to pseudo-politics, to political irresponsibility. The ‘left’ has done this for more than a generation, at least since the 1960s. What would it mean to do otherwise? | §


Notes

  1. See my ‘Class-consciousness (from a Marxist perspective) today’ Platypus Review No51, November 2012.
  2. See my ‘1873-1973, the century of Marxism: the death of Marxism and the emergence of neoliberalism and neo-anarchism’ Platypus Review No47, June 2012.
  3. ‘Marxism and democracy’ Praxis International 1:1, April 1981.
  4. http://rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/founders/default.xqy?keys=FOEA-chron-1820-1825-08-07-3.
  5. Lincoln’s Gettysburg address declared the goal of the Union in the US Civil War to be a “new birth of freedom”. But its declaration that it was fought so that “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the Earth” expressed the sobering consciousness that, by contrast with the European states after the failures of the revolutions of 1848, the US was the last remaining major democratic-republican state in the world.
  6. See my ‘When was the crisis of capitalism? Moishe Postone and the legacy of the 1960s New Left’ Platypus Review No70, October 2014.
  7. See The death agony of capitalism and the tasks of the Fourth International aka Transitional programme for socialist revolution (1938).
  8. Kennedy was speaking at the Hotel Theresa in New York: “I am delighted to come and visit. Behind the fact of Castro coming to this hotel, Khrushchev coming to Castro, there is another great traveller in the world, and that is the travel of a world revolution, a world in turmoil. I am delighted to come to Harlem and I think the whole world should come here and the whole world should recognise that we all live right next to each other, whether here in Harlem or on the other side of the globe. We should be glad they came to the United States. We should not fear the 20th century, for this worldwide revolution which we see all around us is part of the original American Revolution.” Fuller excerpts from Kennedy’s speech can be found at www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=25785.
  9. See ‘Revolutionary politics and thought’ Platypus Review No69, September 2014.
  10. See L Trotsky, ‘Stalinism and Bolshevism’ (1937).
  11. See VI Lenin What is to be done? Burning questions of our movement (1902), and One step forward, two steps back: the crisis in our party (1904), where, respectively, Lenin argues for the non-identity of socialist and trade union consciousness, and defines revolutionary social democracy as Jacobinism tied to the workers’ movement.
  12. See my ‘Democratic revolution and the contradiction of capital’ Weekly Worker October 16 2014; and my follow-up letters in debate with Macnair (November 20 2014, January 8, January 22 and April 16 2015).
  13. See my ‘Why still read Lukács? The place of ‘philosophical’ questions in Marxism’ Platypus Review No63, February 2014; abridged in Weekly Worker January 23 2014.

Review of Andrew Feenberg, The Philosophy of Praxis (2014)

Review of Andrew Feenberg, The Philosophy of Praxis: Marx, Lukács and the Frankfurt School (London and New York: Verso, 2014)

Chris Cutrone

Originally published in Marx & Philosophy Review of Books (February 14, 2015). Re-published by Heathwood Institute (September 7, 2015).

“The mastery of nature (so the imperialists teach) is the purpose of all technology. But who would trust a cane wielder who proclaimed the mastery of children by adults to be the purpose of education? Is not education, above all, the indispensable ordering of the relationship between generations and therefore mastery (if we are to use this term) of that relationship and not of children? And likewise technology is the mastery of not nature but of the relation between nature and man.”
— Walter Benjamin, “To the planetarium,” One-way Street (1928)

Andrew Feenberg’s new book The Philosophy of Praxis is a substantial revision of a much earlier work, Lukács, Marx and the Sources of Critical Theory (1981). If one were to sum up Feenberg’s main point it would be to recover Marxist Critical Theory’s ability to recognize technology as a social relation, and to thus grasp the crisis of capitalism expressed through the crisis of technology. Feenberg arrives at this recognition of Marxism through an investigation of critical theory as the self-reflection of social and political practice, “praxis,” with its roots in the origins of social theory in Rousseau and the German Idealism of Kant and Hegel that had followed upon Rousseau’s breakthrough. The sources of Critical Theory are thus critical theory’s origins in the critique of society. Society, indeed, is a modern invention, in that only modern society recognizes social relations as such, as part of the emancipation of those social relations. The new, modern concept of freedom beginning with Rousseau — Hegel had written that “the principle of freedom dawned on the world in Rousseau, and gave infinite strength to man, who thus apprehended himself as infinite” (The Philosophy of Right) — originated in the revolution of bourgeois society: a new consciousness of social relations came with the experience of their radical transformation. As Adorno, one of the subjects of Feenberg’s book, put it pithily, “Society is a concept of the Third Estate” (“Society,” 1966).

Technology as a social phenomenon, specifically as a phenomenon of social relations, or, technology as a social relation, is Feenberg’s way into political questions of capitalism. His new title for the revised book takes its name from Gramsci’s term for and description of Marxism (in The Prison Notebooks), the “philosophy of praxis,” which Gramsci took over from Croce’s Neo-Hegelian concept of self-reflective practice. The question for politics, then, is the degree of social reflexivity in the recognition of technology. In this, Feenberg follows from Marcuse’s writings from the 1960s, which were concerned with the post-WWII world’s exhibiting what Horkheimer and Adorno had earlier called the “veil of technology,” or, “technology as ideology.” There was a deliberate attempt to overcome the prevailing Heideggerian critique of technology, in which humans became victims of the tools they had fashioned. As Heidegger succinctly phrased it in a barb directed against Marxism, “The laboring animal is left to the giddy whirl of its products so that it may tear itself to pieces and annihilate itself in empty nothingness” (“Overcoming Metaphysics,” 1936–46). Feenberg asks, what would it mean to overcome this reification of technology? And, what would it mean to overcome the political pessimism that the problem of technology seems to pose in capitalism?

The “philosophy of praxis,” then, is Feenberg’s attempt to recognize technology as self-alienated social practice, or to use Lukács’s term, “reified” action that engenders political irresponsibility, the false naturalization or hypostatization of activity that could be changed. Feenberg traces this problem back to the origins of social theory in Rousseau’s critique of civilization, the inherently ambivalent character of social “progress” in history. Feenberg locates in Rousseau what he calls the origins of the “deontological” approach to society: a new conception of freedom which is not merely a “right” but is indeed a “duty.” What Feenberg calls the “deontological grounds for revolution” in Marx, then, is the Rousseauian tradition that Marx inherited from Kant and Hegel, if however in a “metacritical approach.”

Why “metacritical?” Because in the Rousseauian tradition followed by Kant and Hegel, there remains the possibility of a theoretical affirmation and justification of society as being free already, where it would need to become free through radical transformation. Hence the peculiarity of “critical theory” in Marx. According to Feenberg, it was necessary for Marx to transcend the post-Rousseauian “utilitarian” framework of maximizing happiness through addressing “true needs.” For Feenberg, Marx overcomes the “split between reason and need,” or between freedom and necessity, precisely because freedom is understood by Marx as the transformation of necessity. Marx thus followed upon the most radical implications of Rousseauian recognition of “second nature.”

This bears on the centrality of the problem of “technology” in capitalist utilitarianism, which is subject to a precipitous lowering or narrowing of horizons through concern with needs that are falsely naturalized: what is “second nature,” a social product, is mistaken for “first nature,” or what Marx considered a “false necessity.” Such critique of ideology is how Marx overcame the potential conservative implications of how Kant and Hegel regarded “necessary forms of appearance” of social reality. Social practices such as those reified in “technology” seem responsive to necessities that can actually be transformed.

For Feenberg, there is a recurrent problem of neglect but also a red thread of rediscovery of this problem from Marx up to the present, with Lukács and the Frankfurt School providing key moments for recovery along the way.

This is a problem specific to capitalism precisely because of the centrality of labor. Marxism’s point of departure was to regard capital not as a “thing” in terms of the means of production or as “technology” but rather as a social relation, specifically as a social relation of the commodity form of labor. Marx regarded capital as labor’s own product in order to demystify the capitalist estrangement of social relations in technologized production. What Marx called the “capitalist mode of production” was a “contradiction” between the “bourgeois social relations” of production in labor and their unrealized potential beyond themselves, or “industrial forces” that had yet to be mastered socially — that is, politically.

The danger lay in accepting false limits to politics seemingly imposed by technology which poses “nature” as static where it is actually the existing social relations that are recalcitrant obstacles to be overcome.

However, capitalism is not only a problem of false static appearance, but also a “reified” or self-alienated dynamic, in which concrete practices or “technologies” change, but without adequate social-political awareness and agency. This is why the dynamics of technical change and its invidious social effects appear deus ex machina (literally a theodicy for Heidegger; techne as a god), and why it makes sense at all to characterize the problem in Marx’s terms as capital-ism. It is not a problem of “capitalist-ism,” that is, a problem of society subject to the greed and narrow interests of the capitalists, but rather a deeper and more endemic problem of overall participation in social practice.

This brings us back to the original Rousseauian problem of society and political sovereignty: the unlimited, free development both collectively and individually that Rousseau apotheosized in the “general will.” What does it mean, following Marx, that the “general will” appears in the form of “capital,” and, in the 20th century, in the even more alienated form as the imperative of “technology?” It means that the problem of capitalism deepened, and social freedom became even more obscure.

Feenberg provides an important Appendix to his book that addresses the history of Marxism as a phenomenon of this problem. There, Feenberg discusses the issue of Lukács’s “self-identical subject object” of the proletariat in the form of the Communist Party. For Feenberg, Lukács followed both Luxemburg and Lenin’s approaches to the problem of political party and social change. In Feenberg’s formulation, for Lukács, following Lenin and Luxemburg, the political party for proletarian socialism, or the Communist Party, was not only or even especially the “subject” but was at least as if not more importantly the “object” of the working class’s political action in trying to overcome capitalism.

In this sense, the problem of “reification” was not merely an economic or even “political-economic” problem (in the sense of the workers versus the capitalists), but was indeed first and foremost for Lukács a problem of politics. The party was objectified political practice. The question was its critical recognition as such. What had motivated Lukács’s recovery of Marx’s original point of departure, what Feenberg calls the “deontological grounds for revolution,” was precisely the phenomenon of how Marxism itself had become reified and thus went into political crisis by the time of WWI and the revolution — the civil war in Marxism — that had followed in Russia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, etc. It was Lukács’s attempt to explain the underlying problem of that crisis in which Luxemburg and Lenin had been the protagonists that led to his rediscovery of Marx, specifically in the form of the “subjective,” “conscious” or “Hegelian” dimension of Marxism that had fallen out as Marxism had degenerated or become “vulgarized” as a form of objectivistic economic determinism. The crisis of Marxism had led Lukács following Lenin and Luxemburg to a rediscovery of the potential for freedom concealed in capitalism.

The subsequent reification of Marxist politics in Stalinism presented a new problem that the Frankfurt School following Lukács had tried to address. This was paralleled by others, according to Feenberg, such as Merleau-Ponty and Lucien Goldmann. There were problems and some stumbles along the way, however, as Feenberg addresses in discussing the recently translated and published (2011) conversation in 1956 between Horkheimer and Adorno regarding the crisis of official Communism in Khrushchev’s (partial and abortive) attempt at de-Stalinization, which Feenberg finds them to have failed to adequately pursue, an opening only taken up by the 1960s New Left, encouraged not by Adorno and Horkheimer but rather by Marcuse (167–171).

Thus the New Left was another such moment of recovery for Feenberg, motivating an attempted further development of Marxist Critical Theory under changed historical conditions of society and politics. Feenberg’s book, both in its original and its newly revised form, is an ongoing testament to that moment and its continued tasks up to the present. | §

Postscript on party politics

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 72 | December 2014 – January 2015

Coda to “What is political party for Marxism? Democratic revolution and the contradiction of capital: On Mike Macnair’s Revolutionary Strategy (2008),” The Platypus Review 71 (November 2014). Originally published in abridged form as a letter in Weekly Worker 1035 (November 20, 2014).

The Frankfurt School of the 1930s recognized that the two historic constituencies of revolutionary politics, the masses and the party, had failed: the masses had led to fascism; and the party had led to Stalinism.

Trotsky had remarked, in his History of the Russian Revolution (1930), on the “interference of the masses in historical events:” “Whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgment of moralists.”

The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business — kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new régime. Whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgment of moralists. We ourselves will take the facts as they are given by the objective course of development. The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.

But, as Lenin had written in What is to be Done? (1902), this was not a spontaneous development but rather such apparent “spontaneity” could be explained by the prior history of the workers’ movement for socialism. The Russian Revolution had broken out on International Women’s Day, a working class holiday invented by Marxists in the socialist parties of the Second International.

Trotsky wrote, in “Stalinism and Bolshevism” (1937), that Bolshevism was “only a political tendency closely fused with the working class but not identical with it” and had “never identified itself with either the October Revolution or the Soviet state that issued from it.”

Bolshevism considered itself as one of the factors of history, its “Conscious” factor — a very important but not decisive one. We never sinned on historical subjectivism. We saw the decisive factor — on the existing basis of productive forces — in the class struggle, not only on a national scale but on an international scale.

So, what was political party for Marxists such as Trotsky, Lenin and Luxemburg? It was one part of a differentiated whole of society and its political struggles, a political form that allowed for conscious participation in all the variety of arenas for politics that had developed in capitalism: parliaments, labor unions, mass strikes and their councils, and popular assemblies including workers’ councils for revolutionary governance. However, as a political form — as Andrew Feenberg has pointed out, in The Philosophy of Praxis (2014), about Lukács’s account of the articulation of theory and practice in Bolshevism in History and Class Consciousness and related writings — the party was not only or even especially a subject, but also, and perhaps most importantly, an object of political action. It fell to Trotsky, in the aftermath of the failure of Bolshevism, to attempt to sustain this Marxist concept of political form, against Stalinism’s liquidation of politics in the USSR and in the international Communist movement.

In this, Trotsky followed Lenin and Luxemburg as well as Marx and Engels. Trotsky followed Marx in regarding both Stalinism and fascism — as well as FDR New Deal-ism — as forms of the Bonapartist state. The death of the Left as a political force is signaled by its shying away from and anathematizing the political party for social transformation — revolution — not only in anarchism and “Left communist” notions of politics without parties, but most of all in the long and pervasive, if largely unrecognized, Stalinist inheritance that justifies the party only by identifying it with the people, which puts an end to politics, including political consciousness. What Dick Howard, following Marx, warns of the “anti-political” crisis of politics in capitalism expressed by Bonapartism, is this unmediated identification of politics with society, whether through the subordination of society or the liquidation of the party in the state, all in the name of quieting the inherent instability of politics, which society in its crisis of capitalism cannot afford.

For, as Marx recognized in the aftermath of failed revolution in 1848, Bonapartism was not only undemocratic liberalism, unbridled capitalism without political accountability to society, but was also the state run amok, dominating society, and with a great deal of popular support — for instance by what Marx called the “lumpenproletariat,” an example of the reduction of society to a politically undifferentiated mass, the very opposite of what Marx considered the necessary “class consciousness” of the proletariat. This is why Trotsky rightly regarded Stalinism as the “antithesis” of Bolshevism.

Stalinism’s suppression of politics in the Marxist sense was not only undemocratic but also popular, both in the USSR and internationally. It was borne of the same social and thus political crisis in capitalism. Stalinism was not the cause but was an effect of the failure of politics in capitalism. We still need to try to overcome this problem of capitalism by constituting it through the inherently dangerous game of party politics. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review 72 (December 2014 – January 2015).

Dangerous

Chris Cutrone

Letter in Weekly Worker 1035 (November 20, 2014). [PDF]

I would like to respond to the letter (‘Off-piste’, October 23) regarding my article on ‘Democratic revolution and the contradiction of capital’ (October 16), critiquing Mike Macnair’s Revolutionary strategy (2008), and specify the issue of the proletariat as alleged “passive victim of history”. The Frankfurt School of the 1930s recognised that the two historic constituencies of revolutionary politics, the masses and the party, had failed: the masses had led to fascism; and the party had led to Stalinism.

Trotsky had remarked, in his History of the Russian Revolution (1930), on the “interference of the masses in historical events”: “… whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgment of moralists”. But, as Lenin had written in What is to be done? (1902), this was not a spontaneous development, but rather such apparent “spontaneity” could be explained by the prior history of the workers’ movement for socialism. The Russian Revolution had broken out on International Women’s Day, a working class holiday invented by Marxists in the socialist parties of the Second International.

Trotsky wrote, in ‘Stalinism and Bolshevism’ (1937), that Bolshevism was “only a political tendency closely fused with the working class, but not identical with it” and had “never identified itself with either the October revolution or the Soviet state that issued from it”. So what was political party for Marxists such as Trotsky, Lenin and Luxemburg? It was one part of a differentiated whole of society and its political struggles, a political form that allowed for conscious participation in all the variety of arenas for politics that had developed in capitalism: parliaments, labour unions, mass strikes and their councils, and popular assemblies, including workers’ councils for revolutionary governance. However, as a political form – as Andrew Feenberg has pointed out in The philosophy of praxis (2014), about Lukács’ account of the articulation of theory and practice in Bolshevism in History and class consciousness and related writings – the party was not only or even especially a subject, but also and, perhaps most importantly, an object of political action. It fell to Trotsky, in the aftermath of the failure of Bolshevism, to attempt to sustain this Marxist concept of political form, against Stalinism’s liquidation of politics in the USSR and in the international communist movement.

In this, Trotsky followed Lenin and Luxemburg, as well as Marx and Engels. Trotsky followed Marx in regarding both Stalinism and fascism as forms of the Bonapartist state. The death of the left as a political force is signalled by its shying away from and anathematising the political party for social transformation – revolution – not only in anarchism and left communist notions of politics without parties, but most of all in the long and pervasive, if largely unrecognised, Stalinist inheritance that justifies the party only by identifying it with the people, which puts an end to politics, including political consciousness. What Dick Howard, following Marx, means, when he warns of the ‘anti-political’ crisis of politics in capitalism expressed by Bonapartism, is this unmediated identification of politics with society, whether through the subordination of society or the liquidation of the party in the state – all in the name of quieting the inherent instability of politics, which society in its crisis of capitalism cannot afford.

For, as Marx recognised in the aftermath of failed revolution in 1848, Bonapartism was not only undemocratic liberalism, unbridled capitalism without political accountability to society, but was also the state run amok, dominating society, and with a great deal of popular support – for instance by what Marx called the ‘lumpenproletariat’; an example of the reduction of society to a politically undifferentiated mass, the very opposite of what Marx considered the necessary ‘class-consciousness’ of the proletariat. This is why Trotsky rightly regarded Stalinism as the antithesis of Bolshevism.

Stalinism’s suppression of politics in the Marxist sense was not only undemocratic, but also popular, both in the USSR and internationally. It was borne of the same social and thus political crisis in capitalism. Stalinism was not the cause, but was an effect, of the failure of politics in capitalism. We still need to try to overcome this problem of capitalism by constituting it through the inherently dangerous game of party politics. | §

Why still read Lukács? The place of “philosophical” questions in Marxism

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 63 | February 2014

 

The following is based on a presentation given on January 11, 2014 in Chicago. Video recording available online at: <http://youtube.com/watch?v=FyAx32lzC0U>; audio recording at: <http://archive.org/details/cutrone_lukacsteachin011114_201401>.

Georg Lukács in 1913

Georg Lukács in 1913

The role of “critical theory”

Why read Georg Lukács today?[1] Especially when his most famous work, History and Class Consciousness, is so clearly an expression of its specific historical moment, the aborted world revolution of 1917–19 in which he participated, attempting to follow Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg. Are there “philosophical” lessons to be learned or principles to be gleaned from Lukács’s work, or is there, rather, the danger, as the Communist Party of Great Britain’s Mike Macnair has put it, of “theoretical overkill,” stymieing of political possibilities, closing up the struggle for socialism in tiny authoritarian and politically sterile sects founded on “theoretical agreement?”

Mike Macnair’s article “Lukács: The philosophy trap”[2] argues about the issue of the relation between theory and practice in the history of ostensible “Leninism,” taking issue in particular with Lukács’s books History and Class Consciousness (1923) and Lenin (1924), as well as with Karl Korsch’s 1923 essay “Marxism and philosophy.” The issue is what kind of theoretical generalization of consciousness could be derived from the experience of Bolshevism from 1903-21. I agree with Macnair that “philosophical” agreement is not the proper basis for political agreement, but this is not the same as saying that political agreement has no theoretical implications. I’ve discussed this previously in “The philosophy of history”[3] and “Defending Marxist Hegelianism against a Marxist critique,”[4] as well as in “Gillian Rose’s ‘Hegelian’ critique of Marxism.”[5] The issue is whether theoretical “positions” have necessary political implications. I think it is a truism to say that there is no sure theoretical basis for effective political practice. But Macnair seems to be saying nothing more than this. In subordinating theory to practice, Macnair loses sight of the potential critical role theory can play in political practice, specifically the task of consciousness of history in the struggle for transforming society in an emancipatory direction.

A certain relation of theory to practice is a matter specific to the modern era, and moreover a problem specific to the era of capitalism, that is, after the Industrial Revolution, the emergence of the modern proletarianized working class and its struggle for socialism, and the crisis of bourgeois social relations and thus of consciousness of society involved in this process.

Critical theory recognizes that the role of theory in the attempt to transform society is not to justify or legitimate or provide normative sanction, not to rationalize what is happening anyway, but rather to critique, to explore conditions of possibility for change. The role of such critical theory is not to describe how things are, but rather how they might become, how things could and should be, but are not, yet.

The political distinction, then, would be not over the description of reality but rather the question of what can and should be changed, and over the direction of that change. Hence, critical theory as such goes beyond the distinction of analysis from description. The issue is not theoretical analysis proper to practical matters, but, beyond that, the issue of transforming practices, with active agency and subjective recognition, as opposed to merely experiencing change as something that has already happened. Capitalism itself is a transformative practice, but that transformation has eluded consciousness, specifically regarding the ways change has happened and political judgments about this. This is the specific role of theory, and hence the place of theoretical issues or “philosophical” concerns in Marxism. Marxist critical theory cannot be compared to other forms of theory, because they are not concerned with changing the world and the politics of our changing practices. Lukács distinguished Marxism from “contemplative” or “reified” consciousness, to which bourgeois society had otherwise succumbed in capitalism.

If ostensibly “Marxist” tendencies such as those of the followers of Tony Cliff have botched “theory,” which undoubtedly they have, it is because they have conflated or rendered indistinct the role of critical theory as opposed to the political exigencies of propaganda: for organizations dedicated to propaganda, there must be agreement as to such propaganda; the question is the role of theory in such propaganda activity. If theory is debased to justifying propaganda, then its critical role is evacuated, and indeed it can mask opportunism. But then it ceases to be proper theory, not becoming simply “wrong” or falsified but rather ideological, which is a different matter. This is what happened, according to Lukács and Korsch, in the 2nd/Socialist International, resulting in the “vulgarization” of Marxism, or the confusion of the formulations of political propaganda instead of properly Marxist critical theorization.

“Proletarian socialism”

The “proletariat” was Marx’s neologism for the condition of the post-Industrial Revolution working class, which was analogous metaphorically to the Ancient Roman Republic’s class of “proletarians:” the modern industrial working class was composed of “citizens without property.” In modern, bourgeois society, for instance in the view of John Locke, property in objects is derived from labor, which is the first property. Hence, to be a laborer without property is a self-contradiction in a very specific sense, in that the “expropriation” of labor in capitalism happens as a function of society. A modern “free wage-laborer” is supposed to be a contractual agent with full rights of ownership and disposal over her own labor in its exchange, its buying and selling as property, as a commodity. This is the most elementary form of right in bourgeois society, from which other claims, for instance, individual right to one’s own person and equality before the law, flow. If, according to Marx and Engels, the condition of the modern, post-Industrial Revolution working class or “proletariat” expressed a self-contradiction of bourgeois social relations, this was because this set of social relations, or “bourgeois right,” was in need of transformation: the Industrial Revolution indicated a potential condition beyond bourgeois society. If the workers were expropriated, according to Marx and Engels, this was because of a problem of the value of labor at a greater societal level, not at the level of the individual capitalist firm, not reducible to the contractual relation of the employee to her employer, which remained “fair exchange.” The wage contract was still bourgeois, but the value of the labor exchanged was undermined in the greater (global) society, which was no longer simply bourgeois but rather industrial, that is, “capital”-ist.

The struggle for socialism by the proletariat was the attempt to reappropriate the social property of labor that had been transformed and “expropriated” or “alienated” in the Industrial Revolution. Marx and Engels thought this could be achieved only beyond capitalism, for instance in the value of accumulated past labor in science and technology, what Marx called the “general (social) intellect.” An objective condition was expressed subjectively, but that objective condition of society was itself self-contradictory and so expressed in a self-contradictory form of political subjectivity, “proletarian socialism.” For Marx and Engels, the greatest exemplar of this self-contradictory form of politics aiming to transform society was Chartism in Britain, a movement of the high moment of the Industrial Revolution and its crisis in the 1830s–40s, whose most pointed political expression was, indicatively, universal suffrage. The crisis of the bust period of the “Hungry ’40s” indicated the maturation of bourgeois society, in crisis, as the preceding boom era of the 1830s already had raised expectations of socialism, politically as well as technically and culturally, for instance in the “Utopian Socialism” of Fourier, Saint-Simon, Owen et al., as well as in the “Young Hegelian” movement taking place around the world in the 1830s, on whose scene the younger Marx and Engels arrived belatedly, during its crisis and dissolution in the 1840s.

One must distinguish between the relation of theory and practice in the revolutionary bourgeois era and in the post-Industrial Revolution era of the crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism and the proletariat’s struggle for socialism. If in the bourgeois era there was a productive tension, a reflective, speculative or “philosophical” relation, for instance for Kant and Hegel, between theory and practice, in the era of the crisis of bourgeois society there is rather a “negative” or “critical” relation. Hence, the need for Marxism.

As the Frankfurt School Marxist Critical Theorist Theodor Adorno put it, the separation of theory and practice was emancipatory: it expressed the freedom to think at variance with prevailing social practices unknown in the Ancient or Medieval world of traditional civilization. The freedom to relate and articulate theory and practice was a hallmark of the revolutionary emergence of bourgeois society: the combined revolution in society of politics, economics, culture (religion), technique and philosophy—the latter under the rubric “Enlightenment.” By contrast, Romantic socialism of the early 19th century sought to re-unify theory and practice, to make them one thing as they had been under religious cosmology as a total way of life. If, according to Adorno, Marxism, as opposed to Romantic socialism, did not aspire to a “unity of theory and practice” in terms of their identity, but rather of their articulated separation in the transformation of society—transformation of both consciousness and social being—then what Adorno recognized was that, as he put it, the relation of theory and practice is not established once-and-for-all but rather “fluctuates historically.” Marxism, through different phases of its history, itself expressed this fluctuation. But the fluctuation was an expression of crisis in Marxism, and ultimately of failure: Adorno called it a “negative dialectic.” It expressed and was tasked by the failure of the revolution. But this failure was not merely the failure of the industrial working class’s struggle for socialism in the early 20th century, but rather that failure was the failure of the emancipation of the bourgeois revolution: this failure consumed history, undermining the past achievements of freedom—as Adorno’s colleague Walter Benjamin put it, “Even the dead are not safe.” Historical Marxism is not a safe legacy but suffers the vicissitudes of the present. If we still are reading Lukács, we need to recognize the danger to which his thought, as part of Marxism’s history, is subject in the present. One way of protecting historical Marxism’s legacy would be through recognizing its inapplicability in the present, distancing it from immediate enlistment in present concerns, which would concede too much already, undermining—liquidating without redeeming—consciousness once already achieved.

The division in Marxism

The title of Lukács’s book History and Class Consciousness should be properly understood directly as indicating that Lukács’s studies, the various essays collected in the book, were about class consciousness as consciousness of history. This goes back to the early Marx and Engels, who understood the emergence of the modern proletariat and its political struggles for socialism after the Industrial Revolution in a “Hegelian” manner, that is, as phenomena or “forms of appearance” of society and history specific to the 19th century. Moreover, Marx and Engels, in their point of departure for “Marxism” as opposed to other varieties of Hegelianism and socialism, looked forward to the dialectical “Aufhebung” of this new modern proletariat: its simultaneous self-fulfillment and completion, self-negation, and self-transcendence in socialism, which would be (also) that of capitalism. In other words, Marx and Engels regarded the proletariat in the struggle for socialism as the central, key phenomenon of capitalism, but the symptomatic expression of its crisis, self-contradiction and need for self-overcoming. This is because capitalism was regarded by Marx and Engels as a form of society, specifically the form of bourgeois society’s crisis and self-contradiction. As Hegelians, Marx and Engels regarded contradiction as the appearance of the necessity and possibility for change. So, the question becomes, what is the meaning of the self-contradiction of bourgeois society, the self-contradiction of bourgeois social relations, expressed by the post-Industrial Revolution working class and its forms of political struggle?

Marx and Engels regarded the politics of proletarian socialism as a form of bourgeois politics in crisis and self-contradiction. This is what it meant for Marx and Engels to say that the objective existence of the proletariat and its subjective struggle for socialism were phenomena of the self-contradiction of bourgeois society and its potential Aufhebung.

The struggle for socialism was self-contradictory. This is what Lukács ruminated on in History and Class Consciousness. But this was not original to Lukács or achieved by Lukács’s reading of Marx and Engels, but rather mediated through the politics of Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg: Lenin and Luxemburg provided access, for Lukács as well as others in the nascent 3rd or Communist International, to the “original Marxism” of Marx and Engels. For Marx and Engels recognized that socialism was inevitably ideological: a self-contradictory form of politics and consciousness. The question was how to advance the contradiction.

As a participant in the project of the Communist International, for Lukács in his books History and Class Consciousness and Lenin (as well as for Karl Korsch in “Marxism and philosophy” and other writings circa 1923), the intervening Marxism of the 2nd or Socialist International had become an obstacle to Marx and Engels’s Marxism and thus to proletarian socialist revolution in the early 20th century, an obstacle that the political struggles of Lenin, Luxemburg and other radicals in the 2nd International sought to overcome. This obstacle of 2nd International Marxism had theoretical as well as practical-political aspects: it was expressed both at the level of theoretical consciousness as well as at the level of political organization.

2nd International Marxism had become an obstacle. According to Luxemburg, in Reform or Revolution? (1900) and in Lenin’s What is to be Done? (1902) (the latter of which was an attempted application of the terms of the Revisionist Dispute in the 2nd International to conditions in the Russian movement), the development of proletarian socialism in the 2nd International had produced its own obstacle, so to the speak, in becoming self-divided between “orthodox Marxists” who retained fidelity to the revolutionary politics of proletarian socialism in terms of the Revolutions of 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871, and “Revisionists” who thought that political practice and theoretical consciousness of Marxism demanded transformation under the altered historical social conditions that had been achieved by the workers’ struggle for socialism, which proceeded in an “evolutionary” way. Eduard Bernstein gave the clearest expression of this “Revisionist” view, which was influenced by the apparent success of British Fabianism that led to the contemporary formation of the Labour Party, and found its greatest political support among the working class’s trade union leaders in the 2nd International, especially in Germany. In Bernstein’s view, capitalism was evolving into socialism through the political gains of the workers.

Marxism of the Third International

Lenin, Luxemburg, and Lukács and Korsch among others following them, thought that the self-contradictory nature and character—origin and expression—of proletarian socialism meant that the latter’s development proceeded in a self-contradictory way, which meant that the movement of historical “progress” was self-contradictory. Luxemburg summarized this view in Reform or Revolution?, where she pointed out that the growth in organization and consciousness of the proletariat was itself part of—a new phenomenon of—the self-contradiction of capitalism, and so expressed itself in its own self-contradictory way. This was how Luxemburg grasped the Revisionist Dispute in the Marxism of the 2nd International itself. This self-contradiction was theoretical as well as practical: for Luxemburg and for Lenin the “theoretical struggle” was an expression of practical self-contradiction. Leon Trotsky expressed this “orthodox Marxist” view shared by Lenin and Luxemburg in his 1906 pamphlet Results and Prospects, on the 1905 Revolution in Russia, by pointing out that the various “pre-requisites of socialism” were self-contradictory, that they “retarded” rather than promoted each other. This view was due to the understanding that proletarian socialism was bound up in the crisis of capitalism which was disintegrative: the struggle for socialism was caught up in the disintegration of bourgeois society in capitalism. For Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky, contra Bernstein, the crisis of capitalism was deepening.

One of the clearest expressions of this disintegrative process of self-contradiction in Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky’s time was the relation of capitalism as a global system to the political divisions between national states in the era of “monopoly capital” and “imperialism” that led to the World War, but was already apprehended in the Revisionist Dispute at the turn of the 20th century as expressing the need for socialism—the need for proletarian political revolution. Lenin and Luxemburg’s academic doctoral dissertations of the 1890s, on the development of capitalism in Russia and Poland, respectively, addressed this phenomenon of “combined and uneven” development in the epoch of capitalist crisis, disintegration and “decay,” as expressing the need for world revolution. Moreover, Lenin in What is to be Done? expressed the perspective that the Revisionist Dispute in Marxism was itself an expression of the crisis of capitalism manifesting within the socialist workers’ movement, a prelude to revolution.

While it is conventional to oppose Luxemburg and Lenin’s “revolutionary socialism” to Bernstein et al.’s “evolutionism,” and hence to oppose Luxemburg and Lenin’s “dialectical” Marxism to the Revisionist “mechanical” one, what is lost in this view is the role of historical dynamics of consciousness in Lenin and Luxemburg’s (and Trotsky’s) view. This is the phenomenon of historical “regression” as opposed to “progress,” which the “evolutionary socialism” of Bernstein et al. assumed and later Stalinism also assumed. The most important distinction of Luxemburg and Lenin’s (as well as Trotsky’s) “orthodox” perspective—in Lukács’s (and Korsch’s) view, what made their Marxism “dialectical” and “Hegelian”—was its recognition of historical “regression:” its recognition of bourgeois society as disintegrative and self-destructive in its crisis of capitalism. But this process of disintegration was recognized as affecting the proletariat and its politics as well. Benjamin and Adorno’s theory of regression began here.

Historical regression

The question is how to properly recognize, in political practice as well as theory, the ways in which the struggle for proletarian socialism—socialism achieved by way of the political action of wage-laborers in the post-Industrial Revolution era as such—is caught up and participates in the process of capitalist disintegration: the expression of proletarian socialism as a phenomenon of history, specifically as a phenomenon of crisis and regression.

This history has multiple registers: there is the principal register of the post-Industrial Revolution crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism, its crisis and departure from preceding bourgeois social relations (those of the prior, pre-industrial eras of “cooperation” and “manufacture” of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, in Marx’s terms); but there is also the register of the dynamics and periods within capitalism itself. Capitalism was for Marx and Engels already the regression of bourgeois society. This is where Lukács’s (and Korsch’s) perspective, derived from Luxemburg and Lenin’s (and Trotsky’s) views from 1900-19, what they considered an era of “revolution,” might become problematic for us, today: the history of the post-1923 world has not been, as 1848–1914 was in the 2nd International “orthodox” or “radical” Marxist (as opposed to Revisionist) view, a process of increasing crisis and development of revolutionary political necessities, but rather a process of continued social disintegration of capitalism without, however, this being expressed in and through the struggle for proletarian socialism.

It is important to note that Lukács (and Korsch) abandoned rather rapidly their 1923 perspectives, adjusting to developing circumstances of a non-revolutionary era.

Here is where the problematic relation of Tony Cliff’s political project to Lukács (and Korsch), and hence to Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky, may be located: in Cliff’s perspective on his (post-1945) time being a “non-revolutionary” one, demanding a project of “propaganda” that is related to but differs significantly from the moment of Lenin et al. For the Cliffites and their organizations, “political practice” is one of propaganda in a non-revolutionary period, in which political action is less of a directly practical but rather of an exemplary-propagandistic significance. This has been muddled by their strategy of “movement-building.”

This was not the case for Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky, whose political practice was directly about the struggle for power, and in whose practical project Lukács’s (and Korsch’s) “theoretical” work sought to participate, offering attempts at clarification of self-understanding to revolutionaries “on the march.” Cliff and his followers, at least at their most self-conscious, have known that they were doing something essentially different from Lenin et al.: they were not organizing a revolutionary political party seeking a bid for power as part of an upsurge of working class struggle in the context of a global movement (the 2nd International), as had been the case for Lenin at the time of What is to be Done? (1902), or Luxemburg’s Mass Strike pamphlet and Trotsky in the Russian Revolution of 1905. Yet the Cliffites have used the ideas of Lenin and Luxemburg and their followers, such as Lukács and Korsch as well as Trotsky, to justify their practices. This presents certain problems. Yes, Lenin et al. have become ideological in the hands of the Cliffites, among others—“Leninism” for the Stalinists most prominently. So the question turns to the status of Lenin’s ideas in themselves and in their own moment.[6]

Mike Macnair points out that Lukács’s (and Korsch’s) works circa 1923 emphasized attack and so sought to provide a “theory of the offensive,” as opposed to Lenin’s arguments about the necessities of “retreat” in 1920 (as against and in critique of “Left-Wing” Communism) and what Macnair has elsewhere described as the need for “Kautskyan patience” in politically building for proletarian socialism (as in the era of the 2nd International 1889–1914), and so this limits the perspective of Lukács (and Korsch), after Lenin and Luxemburg (and Trotsky), to a period of “civil war” (circa 1905, and 1914/17–19/20/21). In this, Macnair is concerned, rightly, with “theory” becoming a blinder to proper political practice: “theoretical overkill” is a matter of over-“philosophizing” politics. But there is a difference between active campaigning in the struggle for power, whether in attack or (temporary) retreat, and propagandizing, to which Marxism (at best) has been relegated ever since the early 20th century.

However, in raising, by contrast, the need for a conscious openness to “empirical reality” of political experience, Macnair succumbs to a linear-progressive view of history as well as of political practice, turning this into a matter of “lessons learned:” it becomes a quantitative rather than qualitative matter. Moreover, it becomes a matter of theory in a conventional rather than the Marxist “critical” sense, in which the description of reality and its analysis approach more and more adequate approximations.

Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky, and so Lukács (and Korsch), as “orthodox” as opposed to “revisionist” Marxists, conceived of the development of consciousness, both theoretically and practically-organizationally, rather differently, in that a necessary “transformation of Marxism,” which took place in the “peculiar guise” of a “return to the original Marxism of Marx and Engels” (Korsch), could be an asset in the present. But that “present” was the “crisis of Marxism” 1914–19, which is not, today, our moment—as even Cliff and his followers, with their notion of “propaganda” in a non-revolutionary era, have recognized (as did Lukács and Korsch, in subsequently abandoning their circa-1923 perspectives).

So what is the status of such ideas in a non-revolutionary era?

Korsch and the problem of “philosophy”

Karl Korsch, Lukács’s contemporary in the 3rd International, whose work Macnair deliberately and explicitly puts aside, offered a pithy formulation in his 1923 essay on “Marxism and philosophy,” that, “a problem which supersedes present relations may have been formulated in an anterior epoch.” That is, we may live under the shadow of a problem that goes beyond us.

This is a non-linear, non-progressive and recursive view of history, which Korsch gleaned from Luxemburg and Lenin’s contributions to the Revisionist Dispute in the 2nd International (e.g., Reform or Revolution?, What is to be Done?, etc.; and Trotsky’s Results and Prospects). It has its origins in Marx and Engels’s view of capitalism as a regressive, disintegrative process. This view has two registers: the self-contradiction and crisis of bourgeois social relations in the transition to capital-ism after the Industrial Revolution; and the disintegrative and self-destructive process of the reproduction of capitalism itself, which takes place within and as a function of the reproduction of bourgeois social relations, through successive crises.

Marx and Engels recognized that the crisis of capitalism was motivated by the reproduction of bourgeois social relations under conditions of the disintegration of the value of labor in the Industrial Revolution, producing the need for socialism. The industrial-era working class’s struggle for the social value of its labor was at once regressive, as if bourgeois social relations of the value of labor had not been undermined by the Industrial Revolution, and pointed beyond capitalism, in that the realization of the demands for the proper social value of labor would actually mean overcoming labor as value in society, transforming work from “life’s prime need” to “life’s prime want:” work would be done not out of the social compulsion to labor in the valorization process of capital, but rather out of intrinsic desire and interest; and society would provide for “each according to his need” from “each according to his ability.” As Adorno, a later follower of Lukács and Korsch’s works circa 1923 that had converted him to Marxism, put it, getting beyond capitalism would mean overcoming the “law of labor.”[7]

Korsch’s argument in his 1923 essay “Marxism and philosophy” was focused on a very specific problem, the status of philosophy in Marxism, in the direct sense of Marx and Engels being followers of Hegel, and Hegel representing a certain “end” to philosophy, in which the world became philosophical and philosophy became worldly. Hegel announced that with his work, philosophy was “completed,” as a function of recognizing how society had become “philosophical,” or mediated through conceptual theory in ways previously not the case. Marx and Engels accepted Hegel’s conclusion, in which case the issue was to further the revolution of bourgeois society—the “philosophical” world that demanded worldly “philosophy.” The disputes among the Hegelians in the 1830s and ’40s were concerned, properly, with precisely the politics of the bourgeois world and its direction for change. The problem, according to Korsch, was that, after the failure of the revolutions of 1848, there was a recrudescence of “philosophy,” and that this was something other than what had been practiced either traditionally by the Ancients or in modernity by revolutionary bourgeois thinkers—thinkers of the revolution of the bourgeois era—such as Kant and Hegel (also Rousseau, John Locke, Adam Smith, et al.).

What constitutes “philosophical” questions? Traditionally, philosophy was concerned with three kinds of questions: ontology, what we are; epistemology, how we know; and the good life, how we ought to live. Starting with Kant, such traditional philosophical “first questions” of prima philosophia or “first philosophy” were no longer asked, or, if they were asked, they were strictly subordinated or rendered secondary to the question of the relation of theory and practice, or, how we account to ourselves what we are doing. Marxism is not a philosophy in the traditional sense, any more than Kant and Hegel’s philosophy was traditional. Lenin, in the Conclusion of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1908), summed up that the late 19th century Neo-Kantians “started with Kant and, leaving him, proceeded not [forwards] towards [Marxist] materialism, but in the opposite direction, [backwards] towards Hume and Berkeley.” It is not, along the lines of a traditional materialist ontology, that firstly we are material beings; epistemologically, who know the world empirically through our bodily senses; and ethically we must serve the needs of our true, material bodily nature. No. For Kant and his followers, including Hegel and Marx, rather, we consciously reflect upon an on-going process from within its movement: we don’t step back from what we are doing and try to establish a “first” basis for asking our questions; those questions arise, rather, from within our on-going practices and their transformations. Empirical facts cannot be considered primary if they are to be changed. Theory may go beyond the facts by influencing their transformation in practice.

Society is the source of our practices and their transformations, and hence of our theoretical consciousness of them. Society, according to Rousseau, is the source of our ability to act contrary to our “first nature,” to behave in unnatural ways. This is our freedom. And for Kant and his followers, our highest moral duty in the era of the process of “Enlightenment” was to serve the cause of freedom. This meant serving the revolution of bourgeois emancipation from traditional civilization, changing society. However Kant considered the full achievement of bourgeois society to be the mere “mid-point” of the development of freedom.[8] Hegel and Marxism inherited and assumed this projective perspective on the transitional character of bourgeois society.

Marx and Engels can be considered to have initiated a “Second Enlightenment” in the 19th century the degree to which capitalism presented new problems unknown in the pre-Industrial Revolution bourgeois era, because they had not yet arisen in practice. By contrast, philosophers who continued to ask such traditional questions of ontology, epistemology and ethics were actually addressing the problem of the relation of theory and practice in the capitalist era, whether they recognized this or not. Assuming the traditional basis for philosophical questions in the era of capitalism obscured the real issue and rendered “philosophy” ideological. This is why “philosophy” needed to be abolished. The question was, how?

The recrudescence of philosophy in the late 19th century was, according to Korsch, a symptom of the failure of socialism in 1848, but as such expressed a genuine need: the necessity of relating theory and practice as a problem of consciousness under conditions of capitalism. In this respect, Marxism was the sustaining of the Kantian-Hegelian “critical philosophy” but under changed conditions from the bourgeois-revolutionary era to that of capitalism. Korsch analogized this to the recrudescence of the state in post-1848 Bonapartism, which contradicted the bourgeois-revolutionary, liberal prognosis of the subordination of the state to civil society and thus the state’s “withering away,” its functions absorbed into free social relations. This meant recognizing the need to overcome recrudescent philosophy as analogous to the need to overcome the capitalist state, the transformation of its necessity through socialism. “Bonapartism in philosophy” thus expressed a new, late found need in capitalism, to free society. We look to “philosophers” to do our thinking for us the same way we look to authoritarian leaders politically.

As Korsch put it, the only way to “abolish” philosophy would be to “realize” it: socialism would be the attainment of the “philosophical world” promised by bourgeois emancipation but betrayed by capitalism, which renders society—our social practices—opaque. It would be premature to say that under capitalism everyone is already a philosopher. Indeed, the point is that none are. But this is because of the alienation and reification of bourgeois social relations in capitalism, which renders the Kantian-Hegelian “worldly philosophy” of the critical relation of theory and practice an aspiration rather than an actuality. Nonetheless, Marxist critical theory accepted the task of such modern critical philosophy, specifically regarding the ideological problem of theory and practice in the struggle for socialism. This is what it meant to say, as was formulated in the 2nd International, that the workers’ movement for socialism was the inheritor of German Idealism: it was the inheritor of the revolutionary process of bourgeois emancipation, which the bourgeoisie, compromised by capitalism, had abandoned. The task remained.

Transformation of Marxism

Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky, “orthodox Marxists” of the 2nd International who radicalized their perspectives in the crisis of the 2nd International and of Marxism in world war and revolution 1914–19, and were followed by Lukács and Korsch, were subjects of a historical moment in which the crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism was expressed by social and political crisis and the movement for “proletarian socialist” revolution, beginning, after the Industrial Revolution, in the 1830s–40s, the attempt to revolutionize society centrally by the wage-laborers as such, a movement dominated from 1889–1914 by the practical politics as well as theoretical consciousness of Marxism.

Why would Lukács and Korsch in the 20th century return to the origins of Marxism in Hegelianism, in what Korsch called the consciousness of the “revolt of the Third Estate,” a process of the 17th and 18th centuries (that had already begun earlier)? Precisely because Lukács and Korsch sought to address Marxism’s relation to the revolt of the Third Estate’s bourgeois glorification of the social relations of labor, and the relation of this to the democratic revolution (see for example the Abbé Sieyès’s revolutionary 1789 pamphlet What is the Third Estate?): how Marxism recognized that this relation between labor and democracy continued in 19th century socialism, however problematically. In Lukács and Korsch’s view, proletarian socialism sustained just this bourgeois revolution, albeit under the changed conditions of the Industrial Revolution and its capitalist aftermath. Mike Macnair acknowledges this in his focus on the English Enlightenment “materialist empiricism” of John Locke in the 17th and 18th centuries and on the British Chartism of the early 19th century, their intrinsic continuity in the democratic revolution, and Marx and Engels’s continuity with both. But then Macnair takes Kant and Hegel—and thus Lukács and Korsch following them—to be counter-Enlightenment and anti-democratic thinkers accommodating autocratic political authority, drawing this from Hume’s alleged turn away from the radicalism of Locke back to Hobbes’s political conservatism, and Kant and Hegel’s alleged affirmation of the Prussian state. But this account leaves out the crucially important influence on Kant and German Idealism more generally by Rousseau, of whom Hegel remarked that “freedom dawned on the world” in his works, and who critiqued and departed from Hobbes’s naturalistic society of “war of all against all” and built rather upon Locke’s contrary view of society and politics, sustaining and promoting the revolution in bourgeois society as “more than the sum of its parts,” revolutionary in its social relations per se, seminal for the American and French Revolutions of the later 18th century. Capital, emerging in the 19th century, in the Marxist view, as the continued social compulsion to wage-labor after its crisis of value in the Industrial Revolution, both is and is not the Rousseauian “general will” of capitalist society: it is a self-contradictory “mode of production” and set of social relations, expressed through self-contradictory consciousness, in theory and practice, of its social and political subjects, first and foremost the consciousness of the proletariat. It is self-contradictory both objectively and subjectively, both in theory and in practice.

Marx and Engels’s point was to encourage and advance the proletariat’s critical recognition of the self-contradictory character of its struggle for socialism, in what Marx called the “logical extreme” of the role of the proletariat in the democratic revolution of the 19th century, which could not, according to Marx, take its “poetry” from the 17th and 18th centuries, as clearly expressed in the failure of the revolutions of 1848, Marx’s famous formulation of the need for “revolution in permanence.”[9] What this means is that the democratic revolutionary aspirations of the wage-laborers for the “social republic” was the self-contradictory demand for the realization of the social value of labor after this had already taken the form of accumulated capital, what Marx called the “general intellect.” It is not the social value of labor, but rather that of this “general intellect” which must be reappropriated, and by the wage-laborers themselves, in their discontents as subjects of democracy. The ongoing democratic revolution renders this both possible and superfluous in that it renders the state both the agency and obstacle to this reappropriation, in post-1848 Bonapartism, which promises everything to everyone—to solve the “social question” of capitalism—but provides nothing, a diversion of the democratic revolution under conditions of self-contradictory bourgeois social relations: the state promises employment but gives unemployment benefits or subsidizes the lost value of wages; as Adorno put it, the workers get a cut of the profits of capital, to prevent revolution.[10] Or, as Adorno’s colleague, the director of the Frankfurt Institute Max Horkheimer put it, the Industrial Revolution and its continued social ramifications made not labor but the workers “superfluous.”[11] This created a very dangerous political situation—clearly expressed by the catastrophic events of the 20th century, mediated by mass “democratic” movements.

Marxism in the 20th century

In the 20th century, under the pressure of mass democracy—itself the result of the class struggle of the workers—the role of the state as self-contradictory and helpless manager of capitalism came to full fruition, but not through the self-conscious activity of the working class’s political struggle for socialism, confronting the need to overcome the role of the state, but more obscurely, with perverse results. Lenin’s point in The State and Revolution (1917) was the need for the revolutionary transformation of society beyond “bourgeois right” that the state symptomatically expressed; but, according to Lenin, this could be accomplished only “on the basis of capitalism itself” (“Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, 1920). If the working class among others in bourgeois society has succumbed to what Lukács called the “reification” of bourgeois social relations, then this has been completely naturalized and can no longer be called out and recognized as such. For Lukács, “reification” referred to the hypostatization and conservatization of the workers’ own politics in protecting their “class interest,” what Lenin called mere “trade union consciousness” (including that of nationalist competition) in capitalism, rather than rising to the need to overcome this in practice, recognizing how the workers’ political struggles might point beyond and transcend themselves. This included democracy, which could occult the social process of capitalism as much as reveal it.

One phenomenon of such reification in the 20th century was what Adorno called the “veil of technology,” which included the appearance of capital as a thing (as in capital goods, or techniques of organizing production), rather than as Marxism recognized it, a social relation, however self-contradictory.

Film still of Hannah Arendt (2013) directed by Margarethe von Trotta.

Film still of Hannah Arendt (2013) directed by Margarethe von Trotta.

The anti-Marxist, liberal (yet still quite conservative) Heideggerian political theorist Hannah Arendt (and antagonist of Adorno and other Marxist “Critical Theorists” of the Frankfurt School, who was however married to a former Communist follower of Rosa Luxemburg’s Spartacus League of 1919), expressed well how the working class in the 20th century developed after the failure of Marxism:

The modern age has carried with it a theoretical glorification of labor and has resulted in an actual transformation of the whole of society into a laboring society. The fulfilment of the wish, therefore, like the fulfilment of wishes in fairy tales, comes at a moment when it can only be self-defeating. It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor [by technical automation], and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won. Within this society, which is egalitarian because this is labor’s way of making men live together, there is no class left, no aristocracy of either a political or spiritual nature from which a restoration of the other capacities of man could start anew. Even presidents, kings, and prime ministers think of their offices in terms of a job necessary for the life of society, and among the intellectuals, only solitary individuals are left who consider what they are doing in terms of work and not in terms of making a living. What we are confronted with is the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them. Surely, nothing could be worse.[12]

This was written contemporaneously with the Keynesian economist Joan Robinson’s statement that, “The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.”[13] (Robinson, who once accused a Marxist that, “I have Marx in my bones and you have him in your mouth.”[14]) Compare this to what Heidegger offered in Nazi-era lectures on “Overcoming metaphysics,” that, “The still hidden truth of Being is withheld from metaphysical humanity. The laboring animal is left to the giddy whirl of its products so that it may tear itself to pieces and annihilate itself in empty nothingness;”[15] and, in “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking” (1964), the place of Marx in this process: “With the reversal of metaphysics which was already accomplished by Karl Marx, the most extreme possibility of philosophy is attained.”[16] But this was Heidegger blaming Marxism and the “metaphysics of labor” championed politically by the bourgeois revolt of the Third Estate and inherited by the workers’ movement for socialism, without recognizing as Marx did the self-contradictory character in capitalism; Heidegger, for whom “only a god can still save us” (meaning, only the discovery of a new value to serve),[17] and Arendt following him, demonized technologized society as a dead-end of “Western metaphysics” allegedly going back to the Socratic turn of ‘science” followed by Plato and Aristotle in Classical Antiquity, rather than recognizing it as a symptom of the need to transform society, capitalism and its need for socialism as a transitional condition of history emerging specifically in the 19th century.

This was the resulting flat “contradiction” that replaced the prior “dialectical” contradiction of “proletarian socialism” recognized by Marxism, whose theoretical recovery, in the context of the crisis of Marxism in the movement from the 2nd to 3rd Internationals, had been attempted by Lukács and Korsch. What Arendt called merely the (objective) “human condition,” the “vita activa” and its perverse nihilistic destiny in modern society, was, once, the (subjective) “dialectical,” self-contradictory “standpoint of the proletariat” in Marxism, as the “class consciousness” of history: the historical need for the proletariat to overcome and abolish itself as a class, including its own standpoint of “consciousness,” its regressive bourgeois demand to reappropriate the value of labor in capitalism, which would both realize and negate the “bourgeois right” of the value of labor in society. Socialism was recognized by Marxism as the raising and advancing of the self-contradiction of capitalism to the “next stage,” motivated by the necessity and possibility for “communism.” What Arendt could only apprehend as a baleful telos, the society of labor overcoming itself, Marxism once recognized as the need for revolution, to advance the contradiction in socialism.

When Marxists such as Adorno or Lukács can only sound to us like Arendt (or Heidegger), this is because we no longer live in the revolution. Adorno:

According to [Marxist] theory, history is the history of class struggles. But the concept of class is bound up with the emergence of the proletariat. . . . If all the oppression that man has ever inflicted upon man culminates in the cold inhumanity of free wage labor, then . . . the archaic silence of pyramids and ruins becomes conscious of itself in materialist thought: it is the echo of factory noise in the landscape of the immutable. . . . This means, however, that dehumanization is also its opposite. In reified human beings reification finds its outer limits. . . . Only when the victims completely assume the features of the ruling civilization will they be capable of wresting them from the dominant power. . . . Even if the dynamic at work was always the same, its end today is not the end.[18]

Lukács:

[As Hegel said,] directly before the emergence of something qualitatively new, the old state of affairs gathers itself up into its original, purely general, essence, into its simple totality, transcending and absorbing back into itself all those marked differences and peculiarities which it evinced when it was still viable. . . . [I]n the age of the dissolution of capitalism, the fetishistic categories collapse and it becomes necessary to have recourse to the “natural form” underlying them. . . . As the antagonism becomes more acute two possibilities open up for the proletariat. It is given the opportunity to substitute its own positive contents for the emptied and bursting husks. But also it is exposed to the danger that for a time at least it might adapt itself ideologically to conform to these, the emptiest and most decadent forms of bourgeois culture.[19]

Why still “philosophy?”

The problem today is that we are not faced, as Lukács and Korsch were, with the self-contradiction of the proletariat’s struggle for socialism in the political problem of the reified forms of the working class substituting for those of bourgeois society in its decadence. We replay the revolt of the Third Estate and its demands for the social value of labor, but we do not have occasion to recognize what Lukács regarded as the emptiness of bourgeois social relations of labor, its value evacuated by technical but not political transcendence. We have lost sight of the problem of “reification” as Lukács meant it.

As Hegel scholar Robert Pippin has concluded, in a formulation that is eminently agreeable to Korsch’s perspective on the continuation of philosophy as a symptom of failed transformation of society, in an essay addressing how, by contrast with the original “Left-Hegelian, Marxist, Frankfurt school tradition,” today, “the problem with contemporary critical theory is that it has become insufficiently critical:” “Perhaps [philosophy] exists to remind us we haven’t gotten anywhere.”[20] The question is the proper role of critical theory and “philosophical” questions in politics. In the absence of Marxism, other thinking is called to address this—for instance, Arendt (or worse: see Carl Schmitt[21]).

Recognizing the potential political abuse of “philosophy” does not mean, however, that we must agree with Heidegger, that, “Philosophy will not be able to bring about a direct change of the present state of the world” (Der Spiegel interview). Especially since Marxism is not only (a history of) a form of politics, but also, as the Hegel and Frankfurt School scholar Gillian Rose put it, a “mode of cognition sui generis.”[22] This is because, as the late 19th century sociologist Emile Durkheim put it, (bourgeois) society is an “object of cognition sui generis.” Furthermore, capitalism is a problem of social transformation sui generis—one with which we still might struggle, at least hopefully! Marxism is hence a mode of politics sui generis—one whose historical memory has become very obscure. This is above all a practical problem, but one which registers also “philosophically” in “theory.”

The problem of what Rousseau called the “reflective” and Kant and Hegel, after Rousseau, called the “speculative” relation of theory and practice in bourgeois society’s crisis in capitalism, recognized once by historical Marxism as the critical self-consciousness of proletarian socialism and its self-contradictions, has not gone away but was only driven underground. The revolution originating in the bourgeois era in the 17th and 18th centuries that gave rise to the modern philosophy of freedom in Rousseauian Enlightenment and German Idealism and that advanced to new problems in the Industrial Revolution and the proletarianization of society, perverting “bourgeois right” into a form of domination rather than emancipation, and expressed through the Bonapartist state’s perversion of democracy, which was recognized by Marxism in the 19th century but failed in the 20th century, may still task us.

This is why we might, still, be reading Lukács. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review 63 (February 2014). Re-published by Philosophers for Change.


FOOTNOTES
1. See Marco Torres, “Politics as a Form of Knowledge: A Brief Introduction to Georg Lukács,” Platypus Review 1 (November 2007), available online at: <http://platypus1917.org/2007/11/01/politics-as-a-form-of-knowledge-a-brief-introduction-to-georg-lukacs/>.
2. Weekly Worker 987 (November 21, 2013), available on-line at: <http://www.cpgb.org.uk/home/weekly-worker/987/luk%C3%A1cs-the-philosophy-trap>.
3. Weekly Worker 869 (June 9, 2011), available on-line at: <http://www.cpgb.org.uk/home/weekly-worker/869/the-philosophy-of-history>.
4. Weekly Worker 878 (August 11, 2011), available on-line at: <http://www.cpgb.org.uk/home/weekly-worker/878/defending-marxist-hegelianism-against-a-marxist-critique>.
5. Platypus Review 21 (March 2010), available on-line at: <http://platypus1917.org/2010/03/15/gillian-roses-hegelian-critique-of-marxism/>.
6. See my “The relevance of Lenin today,” Platypus Review 48 (July–August 2012), available on-line at: <http://platypus1917.org/2012/07/01/the-relevance-of-lenin-today/>.
7. Quoted in Detlev Claussen, Adorno: One Last Genius (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 48.
8. “Idea for a universal history from a cosmopolitan point of view” (1784), available on-line at: <http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/ethics/kant/universal-history.htm>.
9. “Address to the Central Committee of the Communist League” (1850), available on-line at: <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/communist-league/1850-ad1.htm>.
10. “Late capitalism or industrial society?” AKA “Is Marx obsolete?” (1968).
11. “The authoritarian state” (1942).
12. The Human Condition [Vita Activa] (1958).
13. Economic Philosophy (1962).
14. See Mike Beggs, “Joan Robinson’s ‘Open letter from a Keynesian to a Marxist’” (July 2011), which quotes in full Robinson’s letter from 1953 to Ronald Meek, available on-line at: <http://www.jacobinmag.com/2011/07/joan-robinsons-open-letter-from-a-keynesian-to-a-marxist-2/>.
15. The End of Philosophy, ed. and trans. Joan Stambaugh (University of Chicago Press, 2003), 87.
16. Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 433.
17. 1966 interview in Der Spiegel, published posthumously May 31, 1976.
18. “Reflections on class theory” (1942).
19. “Reification and the consciousness of the proletariat,” History and Class Consciousness (1923).
20. “On Critical Inquiry and critical theory: A short history of non-being,” Critical Inquiry 30 (Winter 2004), 416–417.
21. See Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political (1927/32).
22. Review of the English translation of Adorno’s Negative Dialectics [1973] in The American Political Science Review 70.2 (June 1976), 598–599.

Why still read Lukács? (abridged in CPGB Weekly Worker)

The place of “philosophical” questions in Marxism

Chris Cutrone

Why read Georg Lukács today? Especially when his most famous work, History and class consciousness, is so clearly an expression of its specific historical moment: the aborted world revolution of 1917-19, in which he participated, attempting to follow Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg. Are there ‘philosophical’ lessons to be learned or principles to be gleaned from Lukács’s work, or is there, rather, the danger, as Mike Macnair has put it, of “theoretical overkill” – the stymieing of political possibilities, closing up the struggle for socialism in tiny authoritarian and politically sterile sects founded on “theoretical agreement”?

Mike Macnair’s article, ‘The philosophy trap’,1 argues about the issue of the relation between theory and practice in the history of ostensible ‘Leninism’, taking issue in particular with Lukács’s books, History and class consciousness (1923) and Lenin (1924), as well as with Karl Korsch’s 1923 essay, ‘Marxism and philosophy’.2 The issue is what kind of theoretical generalisation of consciousness could be derived from the experience of Bolshevism from 1903-21. I agree with Macnair that ‘philosophical’ agreement is not the proper basis for political agreement, but this is not the same as saying that political agreement has no theoretical implications. I have discussed this previously in ‘The philosophy of history’3 and ‘Defending Marxist Hegelianism against a Marxist critique’.4 The issue is whether theoretical ‘positions’ have necessary political implications. I think it is a truism to say that there is no sure theoretical basis for effective political practice. But Macnair seems to be saying nothing more than this. In subordinating theory to practice, Macnair loses sight of the potential critical role theory can play in political practice.

A certain relation of theory to practice is a matter specific to the modern era, and moreover a problem specific to the era of capitalism: that is, after the industrial revolution, the emergence of the modern proletarianised working class and its struggle for socialism, and the crisis of bourgeois social relations and thus of consciousness of society involved in this process.

Critical theory recognises that the role of theory in the attempt to transform society is not to justify or legitimate or provide normative sanction, not to rationalise what is happening anyway, but rather to critique, to explore conditions of possibility for change. The role of such critical theory is not to describe how things are, but rather how they might become, how things could and should be, but are not yet.

The political distinction, then, would be not over the description of reality, but rather the question of what can and should be changed, and over the direction of that change. Hence, critical theory as such goes beyond the distinction of analysis from description. The issue is not theoretical analysis proper to practical matters, but, beyond that, the issue of transforming practices, with active agency and subjective recognition, as opposed to merely experiencing change as something that has already happened. Capitalism itself is a transformative practice, but that transformation has eluded consciousness, specifically regarding the ways change has happened and political judgments about this. This is the specific role of theory, and hence the place of theoretical issues or ‘philosophical’ concerns in Marxism. Marxist critical theory cannot be compared to other forms of theory, because they are not concerned with changing the world and the politics of our changing practices. Lukács distinguished Marxism from “contemplative” or “reified” consciousness, to which bourgeois society had otherwise succumbed in capitalism.

‘Proletarian socialism’

The ‘proletariat’ was Marx’s neologism for the condition of the post-industrial revolution working class, which was analogous metaphorically to the ancient Roman republic’s class of ‘proletarians’: the modern industrial working class was composed of “citizens without property”. In modern, bourgeois society – for instance, in the view of John Locke – property in objects is derived from labour, which is the first property. Hence, to be a labourer without property is a self-contradiction in a very specific sense, in that the ‘expropriation’ of labour in capitalism happens as a function of society. A modern ‘free wage-labourer’ is supposed to be a contractual agent with full rights of ownership and disposal over her own labour in its exchange, its buying and selling as property, as a commodity. This is the most elementary form of right in bourgeois society, from which other claims – for instance, individual right to one’s own person and equality before the law – flow.

If, according to Marx and Engels, the condition of the modern, post-industrial revolution working class or ‘proletariat’ expressed a self-contradiction of bourgeois social relations, this was because this set of social relations, or “bourgeois right”, was in need of transformation: the industrial revolution indicated a potential condition beyond bourgeois society. If the workers were expropriated, according to Marx and Engels, this was because of a problem of the value of labour at a greater societal level, not at the level of the individual capitalist firm, not reducible to the contractual relation of the employee to her employer, which remained ‘fair exchange’. The wage contract was still bourgeois, but the value of the labour exchanged was undermined in the greater (global) society, which was no longer simply bourgeois, but rather industrial: that is, ‘capital’-ist.

The struggle for socialism by the proletariat was the attempt to reappropriate the social property of labour that had been transformed and ‘expropriated’ or ‘alienated’ in the industrial revolution. Marx and Engels thought this could be achieved only beyond capitalism: for instance, in the value of accumulated past labour in science and technology, what Marx called the ‘general (social) intellect’. An objective condition was expressed subjectively, but that objective condition of society was itself self-contradictory and so expressed in a self-contradictory form of political subjectivity: ‘proletarian socialism’.

For Marx and Engels, the greatest exemplar of this self-contradictory form of politics aiming to transform society was Chartism in Britain, a movement of the high moment of the industrial revolution and its crisis in the 1830s-40s, whose most pointed political expression was, indicatively, universal suffrage. The crisis of the bust period of the ‘hungry 40s’ indicated the maturation of bourgeois society, in crisis, as the preceding boom era of the 1830s already had raised expectations of socialism, politically as well as technically and culturally – for example, in the ‘utopian socialism’ of Fourier, Saint-Simon, Owen et al, as well as in the ‘Young Hegelian’ movement taking place around the world in the 1830s, on whose scene the younger Marx and Engels arrived belatedly, during its crisis and dissolution in the 1840s.

One must distinguish between the relation of theory and practice in the revolutionary bourgeois era and in the post-industrial revolution era of the crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism and the proletariat’s struggle for socialism. If in the bourgeois era there was a productive tension, a reflective, speculative or ‘philosophical’ relation: for instance, for Kant and Hegel, between theory and practice, in the era of the crisis of bourgeois society there is rather a ‘negative’ or ‘critical’ relation. Hence, the need for Marxism.

The division in Marxism

The title, History and class consciousness, should be properly understood directly as indicating that Lukács’s studies, the various essays collected in the book, were about class-consciousness as consciousness of history.

This goes back to the early Marx and Engels, who understood the emergence of the modern proletariat and its political struggles for socialism after the industrial revolution in a ‘Hegelian’ manner: that is, as phenomena or ‘forms of appearance’ of society and history specific to the 19th century. Moreover, Marx and Engels, in their point of departure for ‘Marxism’, as opposed to other varieties of Hegelianism and socialism, looked forward to the dialectical ‘Aufhebung’ of this new modern proletariat: its simultaneous self-fulfilment and completion, self-negation and self-transcendence in socialism, which would be (also) that of capitalism. In other words, Marx and Engels regarded the proletariat in the struggle for socialism as the central, key phenomenon of capitalism, but the symptomatic expression of its crisis, self-contradiction and need for self-overcoming. This is because capitalism was regarded as a form of society, specifically the form of bourgeois society’s crisis and self-contradiction. As Hegelians, Marx and Engels regarded contradiction as the appearance of the necessity and possibility for change.

So the question becomes, what is the meaning of the self-contradiction of bourgeois society, the self-contradiction of bourgeois social relations, expressed by the post-industrial revolution working class and its forms of political struggle?

Marx and Engels regarded the politics of proletarian socialism as a form of bourgeois politics in crisis and self-contradiction. This is what it meant when they say that the objective existence of the proletariat and its subjective struggle for socialism were phenomena of the self-contradiction of bourgeois society and its potential Aufhebung.

The struggle for socialism was self-contradictory. This is what Lukács ruminated on in History and class consciousness. However, this was not original to Lukács or achieved by Lukács’s reading of Marx and Engels, but rather mediated through the politics of Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg: Lenin and Luxemburg provided access, for Lukács as well as others in the nascent Third or Communist International, to the ‘original Marxism’ of Marx and Engels. For Marx and Engels recognised that socialism was inevitably ideological: a self-contradictory form of politics and consciousness. The question was how to advance the contradiction.

As a participant in the project of the Communist International, for Lukács in History and class consciousness and Lenin (as well as for Karl Korsch in ‘Marxism and philosophy’ and other writings circa 1923), the intervening Marxism of the Second or Socialist International had become an obstacle to Marx’s and Engels’s Marxism and thus to proletarian socialist revolution in the early 20th century – an obstacle that the political struggles of Lenin, Luxemburg and other radicals in the Second International sought to overcome. This obstacle of Second International Marxism had theoretical as well as practical-political aspects: it was expressed both at the level of theoretical consciousness and at the level of political organisation.

Second International Marxism had become an obstacle. According to Luxemburg, in Reform and revolution (1900) and in Lenin’s What is to be done? (1902) – the latter of which was an attempted application of the terms of the revisionist dispute in the Second International to conditions in the Russian movement – the development of proletarian socialism in the Second International had produced its own obstacle, so to the speak, in becoming self-divided between ‘orthodox Marxists’, who retained fidelity to the revolutionary politics of proletarian socialism in terms of the revolutions of 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871, and ‘revisionists’, who thought that political practice and theoretical consciousness of Marxism demanded transformation under the altered historical social conditions that had been achieved by the workers’ struggle for socialism, which proceeded in an ‘evolutionary’ way.

Eduard Bernstein gave the clearest expression of this ‘revisionist’ view, which was influenced by the apparent success of British Fabianism leading to the contemporary formation of the Labour Party, and found its greatest political support among the working class’s trade union leaders in the Second International, especially in Germany. In Bernstein’s view, capitalism was evolving into socialism through the political gains of the workers.

Marxism of the Third International

Lenin, Luxemburg, and Lukács and Korsch among others following them, thought that the self-contradictory nature and character – origin and expression – of proletarian socialism meant that the latter’s development proceeded in a self-contradictory way, and so the movement of historical ‘progress’ was self-contradictory. Luxemburg summarised this view in Reform or revolution, where she pointed out that the growth in organisation and consciousness of the proletariat was itself part of – a new phenomenon of – the self-contradiction of capitalism, and so expressed itself in its own self-contradictory way. This was how Luxemburg grasped the revisionist dispute in the Marxism of the Second International itself.

This self-contradiction was theoretical as well as practical: for Luxemburg and for Lenin the ‘theoretical struggle’ was an expression of practical self-contradiction. Leon Trotsky expressed this ‘orthodox Marxist’ view shared by Lenin and Luxemburg in his 1906 pamphlet Results and prospects, on the 1905 revolution in Russia, by pointing out that the various “prerequisites of socialism”5 were self-contradictory, that they ‘retarded’ rather than promoted each other. This view was due to the understanding that proletarian socialism was bound up in the crisis of capitalism, which was disintegrative: the struggle for socialism was caught up in the disintegration of bourgeois society in capitalism. For Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky, contra Bernstein, the crisis of capitalism was deepening.

While it is conventional to oppose Luxemburg’s and Lenin’s ‘revolutionary socialism’ to the ‘evolutionism’ of Bernstein et al, and hence to oppose Luxemburg’s and Lenin’s ‘dialectical’ Marxism to the revisionist, ‘mechanical’ version, what is lost in this view is the role of historical dynamics of consciousness in Lenin’s and Luxemburg’s (and Trotsky’s) view: this is the phenomenon of historical ‘regression’, as opposed to ‘progress’, which the ‘evolutionary socialism’ of Bernstein et al and later Stalinism assumed. The most important distinction of Luxemburg’s and Lenin’s (as well as Trotsky’s) ‘orthodox’ perspective – in Lukács’s (and Korsch’s) view, what made their Marxism ‘dialectical’ and ‘Hegelian’ – was its recognition of historical ‘regression’: its recognition of bourgeois society as disintegrative and self-destructive in its crisis of capitalism. But this process of disintegration was recognised as affecting the proletariat and its politics as well.

Korsch and the problem of ‘philosophy’

Karl Korsch, Lukács’s contemporary in the Third International, whose work Macnair deliberately and explicitly puts aside, offered a pithy formulation in his 1923 essay on ‘Marxism and philosophy’: “a problem which supersedes present relations may have been formulated in an anterior epoch”.6 That is, we may live under the shadow of a problem that goes beyond us.

This is a non-linear, non-progressive and recursive view of history, which Korsch gleaned from Luxemburg’s and Lenin’s contributions to the revisionist dispute (eg, Reform or revolution, What is to be done?, etc; and Trotsky’s Results and prospects). It has its origins in Marx’s and Engels’s view of capitalism as a regressive, disintegrative process. This view has two registers: the self-contradiction and crisis of bourgeois social relations in the transition to capital-ism after the industrial revolution; and the disintegrative and self-destructive process of the reproduction of capitalism itself, which takes place within and as a function of the reproduction of bourgeois social relations, through successive crises.

Marx and Engels recognised that the crisis of capitalism was motivated by the reproduction of bourgeois social relations under conditions of the disintegration of the value of labour in the industrial revolution, producing the need for socialism. The industrial-era working class’s struggle for the social value of its labour was at once regressive, as if bourgeois social relations of the value of labour had not been undermined by the industrial revolution, and pointed beyond capitalism, in that the realisation of the demands for the proper social value of labour would actually mean overcoming labour as value in society, transforming work from ‘life’s prime need’ to ‘life’s prime want’: work would be done not out of the social compulsion to labour in the valorisation process of capital, but rather out of intrinsic desire and interest; and society would provide for “each according to his need” from “each according to his ability”.

Korsch’s argument in ‘Marxism and philosophy’ was focused on a very specific problem: the status of philosophy in Marxism, in the direct sense of Marx and Engels being followers of Hegel, and Hegel representing a certain ‘end’ to philosophy, in which the world became philosophical and philosophy became worldly. Hegel announced that, with his work, philosophy was ‘completed’, as a function of recognising how society had become ‘philosophical’, or mediated through conceptual theory in ways previously not the case. Marx and Engels accepted Hegel’s conclusion, in which case the issue was to further the revolution of bourgeois society – the ‘philosophical’ world that demanded worldly ‘philosophy’. The disputes among the Hegelians in the 1830s and 40s were concerned, properly, with precisely the politics of the bourgeois world and its direction for change. The problem, according to Korsch, was that, after the failure of the revolutions of 1848, there was a recrudescence of ‘philosophy’, and that this was something other than what had been practised either traditionally by the ancients or in modernity by revolutionary bourgeois thinkers – thinkers of the revolution of the bourgeois era – such as Kant and Hegel (also Rousseau, John Locke, Adam Smith et al).

What constitutes ‘philosophical’ questions? Traditionally, philosophy was concerned with three kinds of questions: ontology, what we are; epistemology, how we know; and the good life, how we ought to live. Starting with Kant, such traditional philosophical ‘first questions’ of prima philosophia or ‘first philosophy’ were no longer asked, or, if they were asked, they were strictly subordinated or rendered secondary to the question of the relation of theory and practice, or, how we account to ourselves what we are doing.

Marxism is not a philosophy in the traditional sense, any more than Kant’s and Hegel’s philosophy was traditional. Lenin, in the conclusion of Materialism and empirio-criticism (1908), summed up that the late 19th century Neo-Kantians “started with Kant and, leaving him, proceeded not [forwards] towards [Marxist] materialism, but in the opposite direction, [backwards] towards Hume and Berkeley”.7 It is not, along the lines of a traditional materialist ontology, that firstly we are material beings; epistemologically, we know the world empirically through our bodily senses; and ethically we must serve the needs of our true, material bodily nature. No. For Kant and his followers, including Hegel and Marx, rather, we consciously reflect upon an ongoing process from within its movement: we do not step back from what we are doing and try to establish a ‘first’ basis for asking our questions; those questions arise, rather, from within our ongoing practices and their transformations. Empirical facts cannot be considered primary if they are to be changed. Theory may go beyond the facts by influencing their transformation in practice.

Society is the source of our practices and their transformations, and hence of our theoretical consciousness of them. Society, according to Rousseau, is the source of our ability to act contrary to our ‘first nature’, to behave in unnatural ways. This is our freedom. And for Kant and his followers, our highest moral duty in the era of the process of ‘enlightenment’ was to serve the cause of freedom. This meant serving the revolution of bourgeois emancipation from traditional civilisation, changing society. However, Kant considered the full achievement of bourgeois society to be the mere ‘mid-point’ of the development of freedom. Hegel and Marxism inherited and assumed this projective perspective on the transitional character of bourgeois society.

Marx and Engels can be considered to have initiated a ‘second enlightenment’ in the 19th century: the degree to which capitalism presented new problems unknown in the pre-industrial revolution bourgeois era, because they had not yet arisen in practice. By contrast, philosophers who continued to ask such traditional questions of ontology, epistemology and ethics were actually addressing the problem of the relation of theory and practice in the capitalist era, whether they recognised this or not. Assuming the traditional basis for philosophical questions in the era of capitalism obscured the real issue and rendered ‘philosophy’ ideological. This is why ‘philosophy’ needed to be abolished. The question was, how?

The recrudescence of philosophy in the late 19th century was, according to Korsch, a symptom of the failure of socialism in 1848, but as such expressed a genuine need: the necessity of relating theory and practice as a problem of consciousness under conditions of capitalism. In this respect, Marxism was the sustaining of the Kantian-Hegelian ‘critical philosophy’, but under changed conditions from the bourgeois-revolutionary era to that of capitalism. Korsch analogised this to the recrudescence of the state in post-1848 Bonapartism, which contradicted the bourgeois-revolutionary, liberal prognosis of the subordination of the state to civil society and thus the state’s ‘withering away’, its functions absorbed into free social relations. This meant recognising the need to overcome recrudescent philosophy as analogous to the need to overcome the capitalist state, the transformation of its necessity through socialism. ‘Bonapartism in philosophy’ thus expressed a new, late-found need in capitalism, to free society. We look to ‘philosophers’ to do our thinking for us the same way we look to authoritarian leaders politically.

As Korsch put it, the only way to ‘abolish’ philosophy would be to ‘realise’ it8 : socialism would be the attainment of the ‘philosophical world’ promised by bourgeois emancipation but betrayed by capitalism, which renders society – our social practices – opaque. It would be premature to say that under capitalism everyone is already a philosopher. Indeed, the point is that none are. But this is because of the alienation and reification of bourgeois social relations in capitalism, which renders the Kantian-Hegelian ‘worldly philosophy’ of the critical relation of theory and practice an aspiration rather than an actuality. Nonetheless, Marxist critical theory accepted the task of such modern critical philosophy, specifically regarding the ideological problem of theory and practice in the struggle for socialism. This is what it meant to say, as was formulated in the Second International, that the workers’ movement for socialism was the inheritor of German idealism: it was the inheritor of the revolutionary process of bourgeois emancipation, which the bourgeoisie, compromised by capitalism, had abandoned. The task remained.

Transformation of Marxism

Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky – ‘orthodox Marxists’ of the Second International who radicalised their perspectives in the crisis of the International and of Marxism in world war and revolution 1914-19, and were followed by Lukács and Korsch – were subjects of a historical moment: the crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism was expressed by social and political crisis and the movement for ‘proletarian socialist’ revolution, beginning, after the industrial revolution, in the 1830s-40s, and the attempt to revolutionise society centrally by the wage-labourers as such, a movement dominated from 1889-1914 by the practical politics as well as theoretical consciousness of Marxism.

Why would Lukács and Korsch in the 20th century return to the origins of Marxism in Hegelianism, in what Korsch called the consciousness of the ‘revolt of the third estate’, a process of the 17th and 18th centuries (that had already begun earlier)? Precisely because Lukács and Korsch sought to address Marxism’s relation to the revolt of the third estate’s bourgeois glorification of the social relations of labour, and the relation of this to the democratic revolution (see, for example, Abbé Sieyès’s revolutionary 1789 pamphlet What is the third estate?9 ): how Marxism recognised that this relation between labour and democracy continued in 19th century socialism, however problematically. In Lukács’s and Korsch’s view, proletarian socialism sustained just this bourgeois revolution, albeit under the changed conditions of the industrial revolution and its capitalist aftermath.

Mike Macnair acknowledges this in his focus on the English enlightenment ‘materialist empiricism’ of John Locke in the 17th and 18th centuries and on the British Chartism of the early 19th century, their intrinsic continuity in the democratic revolution, and Marx and Engels’s continuity with both. But then Macnair takes Kant and Hegel – and thus Lukács and Korsch, following them – to be counter-enlightenment and anti-democratic thinkers accommodating autocratic political authority, drawing this from Hume’s alleged turn away from the radicalism of Locke back to Hobbes’s political conservatism, and Kant and Hegel’s alleged affirmation of the Prussian state.

But this account leaves out the crucially important influence on Kant and German idealism more generally by Rousseau, of whom Hegel remarked that “freedom dawned on the world” in his works, and who critiqued and departed from Hobbes’s naturalistic society of “war of all against all” and built rather upon Locke’s contrary view of society and politics, sustaining and promoting the revolution in bourgeois society as ‘more than the sum of its parts’, revolutionary in its social relations per se, seminal for the American and French revolutions of the later 18th century. Capital in the 19th century, in the Marxist view, as the continued social compulsion to wage-labour after its crisis of value in the industrial revolution, both is and is not the Rousseauian ‘general will’ of capitalist society: it is a self-contradictory ‘mode of production’ and set of social relations, expressed through self-contradictory consciousness, in theory and practice, of its social and political subjects: first and foremost the consciousness of the proletariat. It is self-contradictory both objectively and subjectively, both in theory and in practice.

Marx’s and Engels’s point was to encourage and advance the proletariat’s critical recognition of the self-contradictory character of its struggle for socialism, in what Marx called the “logical extreme”10 of the role of the proletariat in the democratic revolution of the 19th century, which could not, according to Marx, take its “poetry” from the 17th and 18th centuries, as clearly expressed in the failure of the revolutions of 1848, Marx’s famous formulation of the need for “revolution in permanence”. What this means is that the democratic revolutionary aspirations of the wage-labourers for the “social republic” was the self-contradictory demand for the realisation of the social value of labour after this had already taken the form of accumulated capital, what Marx called the “general intellect”.

It is not the social value of labour, but rather that of this “general intellect”, which must be reappropriated, and by the wage-labourers themselves, in their discontents as subjects of democracy. The ongoing democratic revolution renders this both possible and superfluous, in that it renders the state both the agency of and obstacle to this reappropriation, in post-1848 Bonapartism, which promises everything to everyone – to solve the ‘social question’ of capitalism – but provides nothing, a diversion of the democratic revolution under conditions of self-contradictory bourgeois social relations: the state promises employment, but gives unemployment benefits or subsidises the lost value of wages.

In the 20th century, under the pressure of mass democracy – itself the result of the class struggle of the workers – the role of the state as self-contradictory and helpless manager of capitalism came to full fruition, but not through the self-conscious activity of the working class’s political struggle for socialism, confronting the need to overcome the role of the state, but more obscurely, with perverse results. Lenin’s point in The state and revolution (1917) was the need for the revolutionary transformation of society beyond “bourgeois right” that the state symptomatically expressed; but, according to Lenin, this could be accomplished only “on the basis of capitalism itself”.11 If the working class among others in bourgeois society has succumbed to what Lukács called the ‘reification’ of bourgeois social relations, then this has been completely naturalised and can no longer be called out and recognised as such. For Lukács, ‘reification’ referred to the hypostatisation and conservatisation of the workers’ own politics in protecting their ‘class interest’ – what Lenin called mere “trade union consciousness” (including that of nationalist competition) in capitalism – rather than rising to the need to overcome this in practice, recognising how the workers’ political struggles might point beyond and transcend themselves. This included democracy, which could occult the social process of capitalism as much as reveal it.

Why still ‘philosophy’?

The problem today is that we are not faced, as Lukács and Korsch were, with the self-contradiction of the proletariat’s struggle for socialism in the political problem of the reified forms of the working class substituting for those of bourgeois society in its decadence. We replay the revolt of the third estate and its demands for the social value of labour, but we do not have occasion to recognise what Lukács regarded as the emptiness of bourgeois social relations of labour, its value evacuated by technical, but not political transcendence. We have lost sight of the problem of ‘reification’ as Lukács meant it.

As Hegel scholar Robert Pippin has concluded, in a formulation that is eminently agreeable to Korsch’s perspective on the continuation of philosophy as a symptom of failed transformation of society, in an essay addressing how, by contrast with the original “Left-Hegelian, Marxist, Frankfurt school tradition”, today, “the problem with contemporary critical theory is that it has become insufficiently critical”: perhaps philosophy “exists to remind us we haven’t gotten anywhere”.12

The problem of what Rousseau called the “reflective” and Kant and Hegel, after Rousseau, called the “speculative” relation of theory and practice in bourgeois society’s crisis in capitalism, recognised once by historical Marxism as the critical self-consciousness of proletarian socialism and its self-contradictions, has not gone away, but was only driven underground. The revolution originating in the bourgeois era in the 17th and 18th centuries that gave rise to the modern philosophy of freedom in Rousseauian enlightenment and German idealism and that advanced to new problems in the industrial revolution and the proletarianisation of society, perverting ‘bourgeois right’ into a form of domination rather than emancipation – and expressed through the Bonapartist state’s perversion of democracy, which was recognised by Marxism in the 19th century, but failed in the 20th century – may still task us.

This is why we might, still, be reading Lukács. | §

This article is based on a presentation given on January 11 2014 in Chicago. A video recording is available at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=FyAx32lzC0U; and audio recording at https://archive.org/details/cutrone_lukacsteachin011114_201401.
Originally published in
Weekly Worker 994 (January 23, 2014) [PDF].


  1. Weekly Worker November 21 2013. []
  2. www.marxists.org/archive/korsch/1923/marxism-philosophy.htm. []
  3. Weekly Worker June 9 2011. []
  4. Weekly Worker August 11 2011. []
  5. www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1931/tpr/rp-index.htm. []
  6. www.marxists.org/archive/korsch/1923/marxism-philosophy.htm. []
  7. www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1908/mec/concl.htm. []
  8. www.marxists.org/archive/korsch/1923/marxism-philosophy.htm. []
  9. www.college.columbia.edu/core/sites/core/files/text/sieyes2003-4_0.pdf. []
  10. K Marx, ‘Address to the central committee of the Communist League’, March 1850. []
  11. VI Lenin ‘Leftwing’ communism: an infantile disorder, 1920. []
  12. R Pippin, ‘On critical inquiry and critical theory: a short history of non-being’ Critical Inquiry No30, winter 2004, pp416-417. []

Why still read Lukács? (video and audio recordings)

The place of “philosophical” questions in Marxism

Chris Cutrone

Presented at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, January 11, 2014. Video recording available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FyAx32lzC0U; audio recording at: https://archive.org/details/cutrone_lukacsteachin011114_201401.

Still reading Lukács? The role of “critical theory”

Why read Georg Lukács today? Especially when his most famous work, History and Class Consciousness, is so clearly an expression of its specific historical moment, the aborted world revolution of 1917–19 in which he participated, attempting to follow Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg. Are there “philosophical” lessons to be learned or principles to be gleaned from Lukács’s work, or is there, rather, the danger, as the Communist Party of Great Britain’s Mike Macnair has put it, of “theoretical overkill,” stymieing of political possibilities, closing up the struggle for socialism in tiny authoritarian and politically sterile sects founded on “theoretical agreement?”

Mike Macnair’s article “The philosophy trap” (2013) argues about the issue of the relation between theory and practice in the history of ostensible “Leninism,” taking issue in particular with Lukács’s books History and Class Consciousness (1923) and Lenin (1924) as well as with Karl Korsch’s 1923 essay “Marxism and philosophy.” The issue is what kind of theoretical generalization of consciousness could be derived from the experience of Bolshevism from 1903-21. I agree with Macnair that “philosophical” agreement is not the proper basis for political agreement, but this is not the same as saying that political agreement has no theoretical implications. Rather, the issue is whether theoretical “positions” have necessary political implications. I think it is a truism to say that there is no sure theoretical basis for effective political practice. But Macnair seems to be saying nothing more than this. In subordinating theory to practice, Macnair loses sight of the potential critical role theory can play in political practice, specifically the task of consciousness of history in the struggle for transforming society in an emancipatory direction.

A certain relation of theory to practice is a matter specific to the modern era, and moreover a problem specific to the era of capitalism, that is, after the Industrial Revolution, the emergence of the modern proletarianized working class and its struggle for socialism, and the crisis of bourgeois social relations and thus of consciousness of society this entails.

Critical theory recognizes that the role of theory in the attempt to transform society is not to justify or legitimate or provide normative sanction, not to rationalize what is happening anyway, but rather to critique, to explore conditions of possibility for change. The role of such critical theory is not to describe how things are, but rather how they might become, how things could and should be, but are not — yet.

The political distinction, then, would be not over the description of reality but rather the question of what can and should be changed, and over the direction of that change. Hence, critical theory as such goes beyond the distinction of analysis from description. The issue is not theoretical analysis proper to practical matters, but, beyond that, and of course incorporating this, the issue of transforming practices, and doing so with active agency and subjective recognition, as opposed to merely experiencing changed practice as something that has already happened. Indeed, capitalism itself is a transformative practice, but that transformation has eluded consciousness, specifically with regard to the ways change has happened, and political judgments about this. This is the specific role of theory, and hence the place of theoretical issues or “philosophical” concerns, in Marxism. It cannot be compared to other forms of theory, because they are not concerned with changing the world — not concerned with the politics of our changing practices. Lukács characterized this distinction of Marxism from “contemplative” or “reified” consciousness, to which bourgeois society had otherwise succumbed in capitalism.

If ostensibly “Marxist” tendencies such as those of the followers of Tony Cliff have botched “theory,” which undoubtedly they have, it is because they have conflated or rendered indistinct the role of critical theory as opposed to the political exigencies of propaganda: for organizations dedicated to propaganda, there must be agreement as to such propaganda; the question is the role of theory in such propaganda activity. If theory is debased to justifying propaganda, then its critical role is evacuated, and indeed it can mask opportunism. But then it ceases to be proper theory, not becoming simply “wrong” or falsified but rather ideological, which is a different matter. This is what happened, according to Lukács and Korsch, in the 2nd/Socialist International, resulting in the “vulgarization” of Marxism, or the confusion of the formulations of political propaganda instead of properly Marxist critical theorization.

The theory and practice of “proletarian socialism”

A note on the term “proletariat:” This was Marx’s neologism for the condition of the post-Industrial Revolution working class, which was analogous — but only in metaphorical analogy! — to the Ancient Roman Republic’s class of “proletarians:” the modern industrial working class was composed of “citizens without property.” In modern, bourgeois society, for instance in the view of John Locke, property in objects is derived from labor, because labor is the first property. Hence, to be a laborer without property, to be a worker without property in one’s own labor, is a self-contradiction in a very specific sense, in that the “expropriation” of labor happens as a function of society: in Marx and Engels’s view, this is a function of a self-contradictory form of society. A modern “free wage-labor” worker is supposed to be a free contractual agent with full rights of ownership and disposal over her own labor in its exchange, its buying and selling as property, or, more simply, as a commodity. This is the most elementary form of right in bourgeois society, from which other claims, for instance, individual right to one’s own person and equality before the law, flow. If, according to Marx and Engels, the condition of the modern, post-Industrial Revolution working class or “proletariat” expressed a self-contradiction of bourgeois social relations, this was because this set of social relations, or “bourgeois right,” was in need of transformation: the Industrial Revolution indicated a potential condition beyond bourgeois society. If the workers were expropriated, even though their contractual right to dispose of their own labor was already and still continued to be sanctioned by law, according to Marx and Engels, this was because of a problem of the value of labor at a greater societal level, not at the level of the individual capitalist firm, not reducible to the level of the contractual relation of the employee to her employer, which remained “fair exchange.” The wage contract was still bourgeois, but the value of the labor exchanged was undermined in the greater (global) society, which was no longer simply bourgeois but rather industrial, that is, “capital”-ist.

The struggle for socialism by the proletariat was the attempt to reappropriate the social property of labor that had been transformed and “expropriated” or “alienated” in the Industrial Revolution, which Marx and Engels thought could be achieved only beyond capitalism, for instance in the value of accumulated past labor in science and technology, as what Marx called the “general (social) intellect.” An objective condition was expressed subjectively, but that objective condition of society was itself self-contradictory and so expressed in a self-contradictory form of political subjectivity, “proletarian socialism.” The greatest exemplar for Marx and Engels of this self-contradictory form of politics aiming to transform society was Chartism, a movement of the high moment of the Industrial Revolution and its crisis in the 1830s–40s, whose most pointed political expression was, indicatively, universal suffrage. The crisis of the bust period of the “Hungry ’40s” indicated the maturation of bourgeois society, in crisis, as the preceding boom era of the 1830s already had raised expectations of socialism, politically as well as technically and culturally, for instance in the “Utopian Socialism” of Fourier, Saint-Simon, Owen et al. (as well as in the “Young Hegelian” movement taking place around the world in the 1830s, on whose scene the younger Marx and Engels arrived belatedly, during its crisis and dissolution in the 1840s).

One must distinguish between the relation of theory and practice in the revolutionary bourgeois era and in the post-Industrial Revolution era of the crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism and the proletariat’s struggle for socialism. If in the bourgeois era there was a productive tension, a reflective, speculative or “philosophical” relation, for instance for Kant and Hegel, between theory and practice, in the era of the crisis of bourgeois society there is rather a “negative” or “critical” relation. Hence, the need for Marxism.

As the Frankfurt School Marxist Critical Theorist Theodor Adorno put it, the separation of theory and practice was emancipatory: it expressed the freedom to think at variance with prevailing social practices unknown in the Ancient or Medieval world of traditional civilization. The freedom to relate and articulate theory and practice was a hallmark of the revolutionary emergence of bourgeois society: the combined revolution in society of politics, economics, culture (religion), technique and philosophy — the latter under the rubric “Enlightenment.” By contrast, Romantic socialism of the early 19th century sought to re-unify theory and practice, to make them one thing as they had been under religious cosmology as a total way of life. If, according to Adorno, Marxism, as opposed to Romantic socialism, did not aspire to a “unity of theory and practice” in terms of their identity, but rather of their articulated separation in the transformation of society — transformation of both consciousness and social being — then what Adorno recognized was that, as he put it, the relation of theory and practice is not once-and-for-all but rather “fluctuates historically.” Marxism, through different phases of its history, itself expressed this fluctuation. But the fluctuation was an expression of crisis in Marxism, and ultimately of failure: Adorno called it a “negative dialectic.” It expressed and was tasked by the failure of the revolution. But this failure was not merely the failure of the industrial working class’s struggle for socialism in the early 20th century, but rather that failure was the failure of the emancipation of the bourgeois revolution: this failure consumed history, undermining the past achievements of freedom — as Adorno’s colleague Walter Benjamin put it, “Even the dead are not safe.” Historical Marxism is not a safe legacy but suffers the vicissitudes of the present. If we still are reading Lukács, we need to recognize the danger to which his thought, as part of Marxism’s history, is subject in the present. One way of protecting historical Marxism’s legacy would be through recognizing its inapplicability in the present, distancing it from immediate enlistment in present concerns, which would concede too much already, undermining — liquidating without redeeming — consciousness once already achieved.

The division in Marxism: Lukács with Lenin and Luxemburg as “orthodox”

The title of Lukács’s book History and Class Consciousness should be properly understood directly as indicating that Lukács’s studies, the various essays collected in the book, were about class consciousness as consciousness of history. This goes back to the early Marx and Engels, who understood the emergence of the modern proletariat and its political struggles for socialism after the Industrial Revolution in a “Hegelian” manner, that is, as phenomena or “forms of appearance” of society and history specific to the 19th century. Moreover, Marx and Engels, in their point of departure for “Marxism” as opposed to other varieties of Hegelianism and socialism, looked forward to the dialectical “Aufhebung” of this new modern proletariat: its simultaneous self-fulfillment and completion, self-negation, and self-transcendence in socialism, which would be (also) that of capitalism. In other words, Marx and Engels regarded the proletariat in the struggle for socialism as the central, key phenomenon of capitalism, but the symptomatic expression of its crisis, self-contradiction and need for self-overcoming. This is because capitalism was regarded by Marx and Engels as a form of society, specifically the form of bourgeois society’s crisis and self-contradiction.  As Hegelians, Marx and Engels regarded contradiction as the appearance of the necessity and possibility for change. So, the question becomes, what is the meaning of the self-contradiction of bourgeois society, the self-contradiction of bourgeois social relations, expressed by the post-Industrial Revolution working class and its forms of political struggle?

This latter part is key, for Marx and Engels regarded the politics of proletarian socialism as a form of bourgeois politics in crisis and self-contradiction. This is what it meant for Marx and Engels to say that the objective existence of the proletariat (“propertyless” workers) and its subjective struggle for socialism were phenomena of the self-contradiction of bourgeois society and its potential Aufhebung.

The struggle for socialism was self-contradictory. This is what Lukács emphasized and ruminated on in History and Class Consciousness. But this was not original to Lukács or achieved simply by Lukács’s reading of Marx and Engels, but rather mediated through consideration of and attempted active participation in the politics of Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg: Lenin and Luxemburg provided access, for Lukács as well as others in the nascent 3rd or Communist International, to the “original Marxism” of Marx and Engels. For Marx and Engels recognized that socialism was inevitably ideological: a self-contradictory form of politics and consciousness. The question was how to advance the contradiction.

As an active participant in the project of the Communist International, for Lukács in his books History and Class Consciousness and Lenin (as well as for Karl Korsch in “Marxism and philosophy” and other writings circa 1923), the intervening Marxism of the 2nd or Socialist International had become an obstacle to Marx and Engels’s Marxism and thus to proletarian socialist revolution in the early 20th century, an obstacle that the political struggles of Lenin, Luxemburg and other radicals in the 2nd International sought to overcome. This obstacle of 2nd International Marxism had theoretical as well as practical-political aspects: it was expressed both at the level of theoretical consciousness as well as at the level of political organization.

It is important to note that the 2nd International Marxism had become an obstacle. Indeed, according to Luxemburg, in Reform and Revolution (1900) and in Lenin’s What is to be Done? (1902) (the latter of which was an attempted application of the terms of the Revisionist Dispute in the 2nd International to conditions in the Russian movement), the development of proletarian socialism in the 2nd International had produced its own obstacle, so to the speak, in becoming self-divided between “orthodox Marxists” who retained fidelity to the revolutionary politics of proletarian socialism in terms of the Revolutions of 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871, and “Revisionists” who thought that political practice and theoretical consciousness of Marxism demanded transformation under the altered historical social conditions that had been achieved by the workers’ struggle for socialism, which proceeded in an “evolutionary” way. Eduard Bernstein gave the clearest expression of this “Revisionist” view, which indicatively was influenced by the British Fabianism (by Bernstein’s participation in working class politics while living in political exile in the U.K.) that led to the contemporary formation of the Labour Party, and found its greatest political support among the working class’s trade union leaders in the 2nd International, especially in Germany.

Marxism of the Third International

Lenin, Luxemburg, and Lukács and Korsch among others following them, thought that the self-contradictory nature and character — origin and expression — of proletarian socialism meant that the latter’s development proceeded in a self-contradictory way, which meant that the movement of historical “progress” was self-contradictory. Luxemburg summarized this view in Reform or Revolution, where she pointed out that the growth in organization and consciousness of the proletariat was itself part of — a new phenomenon of — the self-contradiction of capitalism, and so expressed itself in its own self-contradictory way. This was how Luxemburg grasped the Revisionist Dispute in the Marxism of the 2nd International itself. This self-contradiction was theoretical as well as practical: for Luxemburg and for Lenin the “theoretical struggle” was an expression of practical self-contradiction. Leon Trotsky expressed this “orthodox Marxist” view shared by Lenin and Luxemburg in his 1906 Results and Prospects, on the 1905 Revolution in Russia, by pointing out that the “pre-requisites of socialism” were self-contradictory: that they “retarded” rather than promoted each other. This view was due to the understanding that proletarian socialism was bound up in the crisis of capitalism which was disintegrative: the struggle for socialism was caught up in the disintegration of bourgeois society in capitalism. For Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky contra Bernstein, the crisis of capitalism was deepening.

One of the clearest expressions of this disintegrative process of self-contradiction in Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky’s time was the relation of capitalism as a global system to the political divisions between national states in the era of “monopoly capital” and “imperialism” that led to the World War, but was already apprehended in the Revisionist Dispute at the turn of the 20th century as expressing the need for socialism — the need for proletarian political revolution. Lenin and Luxemburg’s academic doctoral dissertations of the 1890s, on the development of capitalism in Russia and Poland, respectively, addressed this phenomenon of “combined and uneven” development in the epoch of capitalist crisis, disintegration and “decay,” as expressing the need for world revolution. Moreover, Lenin in What is to be Done? expressed the perspective that the Revisionist Dispute in Marxism was itself an expression of the crisis of capitalism manifesting within the socialist workers’ movement, a prelude to revolution.

While it is conventional to oppose Luxemburg and Lenin’s “revolutionary socialism” to Bernstein et al.’s “evolutionism,” and hence to oppose Luxemburg and Lenin’s “dialectical” Marxism to the Revisionist “mechanical” one, what is lost in this view is the role of historical dynamics of consciousness in Lenin and Luxemburg’s (and Trotsky’s) view: this is the phenomenon of historical “regression” as opposed to “progress,” which the “evolutionary socialism” of Bernstein et al. assumed and later Stalinism also assumed.  The most important distinction of Luxemburg and Lenin’s (as well as Trotsky’s) “orthodox” perspective — in Lukács’s (and Korsch’s) view, what made their Marxism “dialectical” and “Hegelian” — was its recognition of historical “regression” — its recognition of bourgeois society as disintegrative and self-destructive in its crisis of capitalism. But this process of disintegration was recognized as affecting the proletariat and its politics as well. Benjamin and Adorno’s theory of regression began here.

Historical regression

The question is how to properly recognize, in political practice as well as theory, the ways in which the struggle for proletarian socialism — socialism achieved by way of the political action of wage-laborers in the post-Industrial Revolution era as such — is caught up and participates in the process of capitalist disintegration: the expression of proletarian socialism as a phenomenon of history, specifically as a phenomenon of crisis and regression.

This history has multiple registers: there is the principal register of the post-Industrial Revolution crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism, its crisis and departure from preceding bourgeois social relations (those of the prior, pre-industrial eras of “cooperation” and “manufacture” of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, in Marx’s terms); but there is also the register of the dynamics and periods within capitalism itself. Capitalism was for Marx and Engels already the regression of bourgeois society. This is where Lukács’s (and Korsch’s) perspective, derived from Luxemburg and Lenin’s (and Trotsky’s) views from 1900-19, what they considered an era of “revolution,” might become problematic for us, today: the history of the post-1923 world has not been, as 1848–1914 was in the 2nd International “orthodox” or “radical” Marxist (as opposed to Revisionist) view, a process of increasing crisis and development of revolutionary political necessities, but rather a process of continued social disintegration of capitalism without, however, this being expressed in and through the struggle for proletarian socialism.

It is important to note that Lukács (and Korsch) abandoned rather rapidly their 1923 perspectives, adjusting to developing circumstances of a non-revolutionary era.

Here is where the problematic relation of Tony Cliff’s political project to Lukács (and Korsch), and hence to Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky, may be located: in Cliff’s perspective on his (post-1945) time being a “non-revolutionary” one, demanding a project of “propaganda” that is related to but differs significantly from the moment of Lenin et al. For the Cliffites and their organizations, “political practice” is one of propaganda in a non-revolutionary period, in which political action is less of a directly practical but rather of an exemplary-propagandistic significance. This has been muddled by “movement-building.”

This was not the case for Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky, whose political practice was directly about the struggle for power, and in whose practical project Lukács’s (and Korsch’s) “theoretical” work sought to participate, offering attempts at clarification of self-understanding to revolutionaries “on the march.” Cliff and his followers, at least at their most self-conscious, have known that they were doing something essentially different from Lenin et al.: they were not organizing a revolutionary political party seeking a bid for power as part of an upsurge of working class struggle in the context of a global movement (the 2nd International), as had been the case for Lenin at the time of What is to be Done? (1902), or Luxemburg’s Mass Strike pamphlet and Trotsky in the Russian Revolution of 1905. Yet the Cliffites have used the ideas of Lenin and Luxemburg and their followers, such as Lukács and Korsch as well as Trotsky, to justify their practices. This presents certain problems. Yes, Lenin et al. have become ideological in the hands of the Cliffites, among others — “Leninism” for the Stalinists most prominently. So the question turns to the status of Lenin’s ideas in themselves and in their own moment.

Mike Macnair points out that Lukács’s (and Korsch’s) works circa 1923 emphasized attack and so sought to provide a “theory of the offensive,” as opposed to Lenin’s arguments about the necessities of “retreat” in 1920 (as against and in critique of “Left-Wing” Communism) and what Macnair has elsewhere described as the need for “Kautskyan patience” in politically building for proletarian socialism (as in the era of the 2nd International 1889–1914), and so this limits the perspective of Lukács (and Korsch), after Lenin and Luxemburg (and Trotsky), to a period of “civil war” (1905, 1914/17–19/20/21). In this, Macnair is concerned, rightly, with “theory” becoming a blinder to proper political practice: “theoretical overkill” is a matter of over-“philosophizing” politics. But there is a difference between active campaigning in the struggle for power, whether in attack or (temporary) retreat, and propagandizing, to which Marxism (at best) has been relegated ever since the early 20th century.

However, in raising, by contrast, the need for a conscious openness to “empirical reality” of political experience, Macnair succumbs to a linear-progressive view of history as well as of political practice, turning this into a matter of “lessons learned:” it becomes a quantitative rather than qualitative matter. Moreover, it becomes a matter of theory in a conventional rather than the Marxist “critical” sense, in which the description of reality and its analysis approach more and more adequate approximations.

Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky, and so Lukács (and Korsch), as “orthodox” as opposed to “revisionist” Marxists, conceived of the development of consciousness, both theoretically and practically-organizationally, rather differently, in that a necessary “transformation of Marxism,” which took place in the “peculiar guise” of a “return to the original Marxism of Marx and Engels” (Korsch), could be an asset in the present. But that “present” was the “crisis of Marxism” 1914–19, which is not, today, our moment — as even Cliff and his followers, with their notion of “propaganda” in a non-revolutionary era, have recognized (as did Lukács and Korsch, in subsequently abandoning their circa-1923 perspectives).

So what is the status of such ideas in a non-revolutionary era?

Korsch and the problem of “philosophy”

Karl Korsch, Lukács’s contemporary in the 3rd Intl., whose work Macnair deliberately and explicitly puts aside in his attack on the problematic legacy of Lukács’s books History and Class Consciousness and Lenin for the Cliffites, offered a pithy formulation in his 1923 essay on “Marxism and philosophy,” which is that “a problem which supersedes present relations may have been formulated in an anterior epoch.”

This is a non-linear, non-progressive and recursive view of history, which Korsch gleaned from Luxemburg and Lenin’s contributions to the Revisionist Dispute in the 2nd International (e.g., Reform or Revolution, What is to be Done?, etc.; and Trotsky’s Results and Prospects). It has its origins in Marx and Engels’s view of capitalism as a regressive, disintegrative process. This view has two registers: the self-contradiction and crisis of bourgeois social relations in the transition to capitalism after the Industrial Revolution; and the disintegrative and self-destructive process of the reproduction of capitalism itself, which takes place within and as a function of the reproduction of bourgeois social relations, through successive crises.

Marx and Engels recognized that the crisis of capitalism was motivated by the reproduction of bourgeois social relations under conditions of the disintegration of the value of labor in the Industrial Revolution, producing the need for socialism. The industrial-era working class’s struggle for the social value of its labor was at once regressive, as if bourgeois social relations of the value of labor had not been undermined by the Industrial Revolution, and pointed beyond capitalism, in that the realization of the demands for proper social value of labor would mean overcoming labor as value in society, transforming work from “life’s prime need” to “life’s prime want:” work would be done not out of the social compulsion to labor in the valorization process of capital, but rather out of intrinsic desire and interest; and society would provide for “each according to his need” from “each according to his ability.” As Adorno, a later follower of Lukács and Korsch’s works circa 1923 that had converted him to Marxism, put it, getting beyond capitalism would mean overcoming the “law of labor.”

Korsch’s argument in his 1923 essay “Marxism and philosophy” was focused on a very specific problem, the status of philosophy in Marxism, in the direct sense of Marx and Engels being followers of Hegel, and Hegel representing a certain “end” to philosophy, in which the world became philosophical and philosophy became worldly. Hegel announced that with his work, philosophy was “completed,” as a function of recognizing how society had become “philosophical,” or mediated through conceptual theory in ways previously not the case. Marx and Engels accepted Hegel’s conclusion, in which case the issue was to further the revolution of bourgeois society — the “philosophical” world that demanded worldly “philosophy.” The disputes among the Hegelians in the 1830s and ’40s were concerned, properly, with precisely the politics of the bourgeois world and its direction of change. The problem, according to Korsch, was that, post-1848, there was a recrudescence of “philosophy,” and that this was something other than what had been practiced either traditionally by the Ancients or in modernity by revolutionary bourgeois thinkers — thinkers of the revolution of the bourgeois era — such as Kant and Hegel (also Rousseau, John Locke, Adam Smith, et al.).

The recrudescence of philosophy in the late 19th century was, according to Korsch, a symptom of the failure of socialism in 1848, but as such expressed a genuine need: the necessity of relating theory and practice as a problem of consciousness under conditions of capitalism. In this respect, Marxism was the sustaining of the Kantian-Hegelian “critical philosophy” but under changed conditions from the bourgeois-revolutionary era to that of capitalism. Korsch analogized this to the recrudescence of the state in post-1848 Bonapartism, which contradicted the bourgeois-revolutionary, liberal prognosis of the subordination of the state to civil society and thus the state’s “withering away,” its functions absorbed into free social relations. This meant recognizing the need to overcome recrudescent philosophy as analogous to the need to overcome the capitalist state, the transformation of its necessity through socialism. “Bonapartism in philosophy” expressed a new, late found need in capitalism to free society.

As Korsch put it, the only way to “abolish” philosophy would be to “realize” it: socialism would be the attainment of the “philosophical world” promised by bourgeois emancipation but betrayed by capitalism, which renders society opaque. It would be premature to say that under capitalism everyone is already a philosopher. Indeed, the point is that none are. But this is because of the alienation and reification of bourgeois social relations in capitalism, which renders the Kantian-Hegelian “worldly philosophy” of the critical relation of theory and practice an aspiration rather than an actuality. Nonetheless, Marxist critical theory accepted the task of such modern critical philosophy, specifically regarding the ideological problem of theory and practice in the struggle for socialism. This is what it  meant to say, as was formulated in the 2nd International, that the workers’ movement for socialism was the inheritor of German Idealism: it was the inheritor of the revolutionary process of bourgeois emancipation, which the bourgeoisie, compromised by capitalism, had abandoned. The task remained.

Transformation of Marxism through “return” to Marx — and return to the bourgeois revolution

Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky, “orthodox Marxists” of the 2nd International who radicalized their perspectives in the crisis of the 2nd International and of Marxism in world war and revolution 1914–19, and were followed by new converts to Marxism such as Lukács and Korsch, were subjects of a historical moment in which the crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism was expressed by social and political crisis and the movement for “proletarian socialist” revolution, beginning, after the Industrial Revolution, in the 1830s–40s, the attempt to revolutionize society centrally by the wage-laborers as such, a movement dominated from 1889–1914 by the practical politics as well as theoretical consciousness of Marxism. — However, we must recognize today that that moment was lost.

Why would Lukács and Korsch in the 20th century return to the origins of Marxism in Hegelianism, in what Korsch called the consciousness of the “revolt of the Third Estate?,” a process of the 17th and 18th centuries (that had already begun earlier)? Precisely because Lukács and Korsch sought to address Marxism’s relation to the revolt of the Third Estate’s bourgeois glorification of the social relations of labor, and the relation of this to the democratic revolution (see for example the Abbé Sieyès’s revolutionary 1789 pamphlet What is the Third Estate?): how Marxism recognized that this relation between labor and democracy continued in 19th century socialism. In Lukács and Korsch’s view, proletarian socialism sustained just this bourgeois revolution, albeit under the changed conditions of the Industrial Revolution and its capitalist aftermath. Mike Macnair acknowledges this in his focus on the English Enlightenment “materialism” of John Locke in the 17th and 18th centuries and the British Chartism of the early 19th century, their intrinsic continuity in the democratic revolution, and Marx and Engels’s continuity with both. But then Macnair takes Kant and Hegel — and thus Lukács and Korsch following them — to be counter-Enlightenment and anti-democratic thinkers accommodating autocratic political authority, drawing this from Hume’s alleged turn away from the radicalism of Locke back to Hobbes’s political conservatism, and Kant and Hegel’s alleged affirmation of the Prussian state. But this leaves out the crucially important influence on Kant and German Idealism more generally by Rousseau, of whom Hegel remarked that “freedom dawned on the world” in his works, and who critiqued and departed from Hobbes’s society of “war of all against all” and built rather upon Locke’s view of society and politics, sustaining and promoting the revolution in bourgeois society as “more than the sum of its parts,” revolutionary in its social relations per se, seminal for the American and French Revolutions of the later 18th century. Capital, as the continued social compulsion to wage-labor after its crisis of value in the Industrial Revolution, both is and is not the Rousseauian “general will” of capitalist society: it is a self-contradictory “mode of production” and set of social relations, expressed through self-contradictory consciousness, in theory and practice, of its social and political subjects, first and foremost the consciousness of the proletariat.

Marx and Engels’s point was the proletariat’s critical recognition of the self-contradictory character of its struggle for socialism, in what Marx called the “logical extreme” of the role of the proletariat in the democratic revolution of the 19th century, which could not, according to Marx, take its “poetry” from the 17th and 18th centuries, as clearly expressed in the failure of the revolutions of 1848 (“Address to the Central Committee of the Communist League,” 1850), Marx’s famous formulation of the need for “revolution in permanence.”  What this means is that the democratic revolutionary aspirations of the wage-laborers for the “social republic” was the self-contradictory demand for the realization of the social value of labor after this had already taken the form of accumulated capital, what Marx called the “general intellect.” It is not the social value of labor, but rather that of this “general intellect” which must be reappropriated, and by the wage-laborers themselves, in their discontents as subjects of democracy. The ongoing democratic revolution renders this both possible and superfluous in that it renders the state both the agency and obstacle to this reappropriation, in post-1848 Bonapartism, which promises everything to everyone — to overcome the “social question” of capitalism —  but provides nothing, a diversion of the democratic revolution under conditions of self-contradictory bourgeois social relations: the state promises employment but gives unemployment benefits or subsidizes the lost value of wages; as Adorno put it, the workers get a cut of the profits of capital, to prevent revolution (“Late capitalism or industrial society?” AKA “Is Marx obsolete?,” 1968). Or, as Adorno’s colleague, the director of the Frankfurt Institute Max Horkheimer put it, the Industrial Revolution and its continued social ramifications made not labor but the workers “superfluous.” This created a very dangerous political situation — clearly expressed by the catastrophic events of the 20th century, mediated by mass “democratic” movements.

Marxism in the 20th century

In the 20th century, under the pressure of mass democracy — itself the result of the class struggle of the workers — the role of the state as self-contradictory and helpless manager of capitalism came to full fruition, but not through the self-conscious activity of the working class’s political struggle for socialism, confronting the need to overcome the role of the state, but more obscurely, with perverse results. Lenin’s point in The State and Revolution (1917) was the need for the revolutionary transformation of society beyond “bourgeois right” that the state symptomatically expressed; but, according to Lenin, this could be accomplished only “on the basis of capitalism itself” (“Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, 1920). If the working class among others in bourgeois society has succumbed to what Lukács called the “reification” of bourgeois social relations, then this has been completely naturalized and can no longer be called out and recognized as such. For Lukács, “reification” referred to the hypostatization and conservatization of the workers’ own politics in protecting their “class interest,” what Lenin called mere “trade union consciousness” (including that of nationalist competition) in capitalism, rather than rising to the need to overcome this in practice, recognizing how the workers’ political struggles might point beyond and transcend themselves. This included democracy, which could occult the social process of capitalism as much as reveal it.

One phenomenon of such reification in the 20th century was what Adorno called the “veil of technology,” which included the appearance of capital as a thing (as in capital goods, or techniques of organizing production), rather than as Marxism recognized it, a social relation, however self-contradictory.

The anti-Marxist, liberal (yet still quite conservative) Heideggerian political theorist Hannah Arendt (and an antagonist of Adorno and other Marxist “Critical Theorists” of the Frankfurt School, who was however married to a former Communist follower of Rosa Luxemburg’s Spartacus League of 1919), expressed well how the working class in the 20th century developed after the failure of Marxism:

The modern age has carried with it a theoretical glorification of labor and has resulted in an actual transformation of the whole of society into a laboring society. The fulfilment of the wish, therefore, like the fulfilment of wishes in fairy tales, comes at a moment when it can only be self-defeating. It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor [by technical automation], and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won. Within this society, which is egalitarian because this is labor’s way of making men live together, there is no class left, no aristocracy of either a political or spiritual nature from which a restoration of the other capacities of man could start anew. Even presidents, kings, and prime ministers think of their offices in terms of a job necessary for the life of society, and among the intellectuals, only solitary individuals are left who consider what they are doing in terms of work and not in terms of making a living. What we are confronted with is the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them. Surely, nothing could be worse. (The Human Condition [Vita Activa], 1958.)

Compare this to what Heidegger offered in Nazi-era lectures on “Overcoming metaphysics,” that, “The still hidden truth of Being is withheld from metaphysical humanity.  The laboring animal is left to the giddy whirl of its products so that it may tear itself to pieces and annihilate itself in empty nothingness” (The End of Philosophy, ed. and trans. Joan Stambaugh [University of Chicago Press, 2003], 87); and, in “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking” (1964), the place of Marx in this process: “With the reversal of metaphysics which was already accomplished by Karl Marx, the most extreme possibility of philosophy is attained” (Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell [New York: HarperCollins, 1993],433 ). But this was Heidegger blaming Marxism and the “metaphysics of labor” championed politically by the bourgeois revolt of the Third Estate and inherited by the workers’ movement for socialism, without recognizing as Marx did the self-contradictory character in capitalism; Heidegger, for whom “only a god can still save us” (1966 interview in Der Spiegel, published posthumously May 31, 1976), and Arendt following him, demonized technologized society as a dead-end of “Western metaphysics” allegedly going back to the Socratic turn of ‘science” followed by Plato and Aristotle in Classical Antiquity, rather than recognizing it as a symptom of the need to transform society, capitalism and its need for socialism as a transitional condition of history.

This was the resulting flat “contradiction” that replaced the prior “dialectical” contradiction of “proletarian socialism” recognized by Marxism, whose theoretical recovery, in the context of the crisis of Marxism in the movement from the 2nd to 3rd Internationals, had been attempted by Lukács and Korsch. What Arendt called merely the (objective) “human condition,” the “vita activa” and its perverse nihilistic destiny in modern society, was, once, the (subjective) “dialectical,” self-contradictory “standpoint of the proletariat” in Marxism, as the “class consciousness” of history: the historical need for the proletariat to overcome and abolish itself as a class, including its own standpoint of “consciousness,” its regressive bourgeois demand to reappropriate the value of labor in capitalism, which would both realize and negate the “bourgeois right” of the value of labor in society. Socialism was recognized by Marxism as the raising and advancing of the self-contradiction of capitalism to the “next stage,” motivated by the necessity and possibility for “communism.” What Arendt could only apprehend as a baleful telos, the society of labor overcoming itself, Marxism once recognized as the need for revolution, to advance the contradiction in socialism.

When Marxists such as Adorno or Lukács can only sound to us like Arendt (or Heidegger!), this is because we no longer live in the revolution. Adorno:

According to [Marxist] theory, history is the history of class struggles. But the concept of class is bound up with the emergence of the proletariat. . . . If all the oppression that man has ever inflicted upon man culminates in the cold inhumanity of free wage labor, then . . . the archaic silence of pyramids and ruins becomes conscious of itself in materialist thought: it is the echo of factory noise in the landscape of the immutable. . . . This means, however, that dehumanization is also its opposite. In reified human beings reification finds its outer limits. . . . Only when the victims completely assume the features of the ruling civilization will they be capable of wresting them from the dominant power. . . . Even if the dynamic at work was always the same, its end today is not the end. (“Reflections on class theory,” 1942.)

Lukács:

[As Hegel said,] directly before the emergence of something qualitatively new, the old state of affairs gathers itself up into its original, purely general, essence, into its simple totality, transcending and absorbing back into itself all those marked differences and peculiarities which it evinced when it was still viable. . . . [I]n the age of the dissolution of capitalism, the fetishistic categories collapse and it becomes necessary to have recourse to the “natural form” underlying them. . . . As the antagonism becomes more acute two possibilities open up for the proletariat. It is given the opportunity to substitute its own positive contents for the emptied and bursting husks. But also it is exposed to the danger that for a time at least it might adapt itself ideologically to conform to these, the emptiest and most decadent forms of bourgeois culture. (“Reification and the consciousness of the proletariat,” History and Class Consciousness, 1923.)

Why still “philosophy?”

The problem today is that we are not faced with the self-contradiction of the proletariat’s struggle for socialism in the political problem of the “reified forms” of the working class substituting for those of bourgeois society in its “decadence.” We replay the revolt of the Third Estate and its demands for the social value of labor — at best, but, really, repeat the early bourgeois Protestant Christian demand for social “justice,” however more nebulously. We do not have occasion to recognize the “emptiness” of bourgeois social relations of labor, its value evacuated by technical but not political transcendence. Indeed, now we have lost sight of the problem of “reification” at all as Lukács meant it.

As Hegel scholar Robert Pippin has recently concluded, in a formulation that is eminently agreeable to Korsch’s perspective on the continuation of philosophy as a symptom of failed transformation of society, in an essay addressing how, by contrast with the original “Left-Hegelian, Marxist, Frankfurt school tradition,” “the problem with contemporary critical theory is that it has become insufficiently critical:” “Perhaps [philosophy] exists to remind us we haven’t gotten anywhere” (“On Critical Inquiry and critical theory: A short history of non-being,” Critical Inquiry 30 [Winter 2004], 416–417). The question is the proper role of critical theory and “philosophical” questions in politics. In the absence of Marxism, other thinking is called to address this — for instance, Arendt (or worse: see Carl Schmitt).

Recognizing the potential political abuse of “philosophy” does not mean, however, that we must agree with Heidegger, that, “Philosophy will not be able to bring about a direct change of the present state of the world” (Der Spiegel interview). Especially since Marxism is not only (a history of) a form of politics, but also, as the Hegel and Frankfurt School scholar Gillian Rose put it, a “mode of cognition sui generis” (review of the English translation of Adorno’s Negative Dialectics [1973] in The American Political Science Review 70.2 [June 1976], 598–599). This is because, as the late 19th century sociologist Emile Durkheim put it, (bourgeois) society is an “object of cognition sui generis.” Furthermore, capitalism is a problem of social transformation sui generis — one with which we still might struggle, at least hopefully! Marxism is hence a mode of politics sui generis — one whose historical memory has become very obscure. This is above all a practical problem, but one which registers also “philosophically” in “theory.”

The problem of what Rousseau called the “reflective” and Kant and Hegel, after Rousseau, called the “speculative” relation of theory and practice in bourgeois society’s crisis in capitalism, recognized once by historical Marxism as the critical self-consciousness of proletarian socialism and its self-contradictions, has not gone away but was only driven underground. The revolution originating in the bourgeois era in the 17th and 18th centuries that gave rise to the modern philosophy of freedom in Rousseauian Enlightenment and German Idealism and that advanced to new problems in the Industrial Revolution and the proletarianization of society, perverting “bourgeois right” into a form of domination rather than emancipation, and expressed through the Bonapartist state’s perversion of democracy, which was recognized by Marxism in the 19th century but failed in the 20th century, may still task us.

This is why we might, still, be reading Lukács. | §


Background readings:

Readings for teach-in on the Communist Party of Great Britain’s campaign against Lukács and its stakes for Platypus as a project.

Mike Macnair, “The philosophy trap” 11/21/13

Chris Cutrone, “Defending Marxist Hegelianism against a Marxist critique” 8/11/11

Georg Lukács, Original Preface (1922) to History and Class Consciousness (1923)

Articles in exchange originally published in Weekly Worker January 24 – March 14, 2013. [PDF]

James Turley, “The antinomies of Georg Lukács” 1/24/13

Chris Cutrone, “Regression” 1/31/13

James Turley, “Dummy” 2/21/13

Chris Cutrone, “Nota bene” 2/28/13

James Turley, “Bacon” 3/7/13

Lawrence Parker, “Lukács reloaded” 3/7/13

Chris Cutrone, “Unreloaded” 3/14/13

Supplemental reading:

Chris Cutrone, “Gillian Rose’s ‘Hegelian’ critique of Marxism” 3/1/10

Video and audio recordings of Chicago teach-in 1/11/14:

Adorno’s Marxism

University of Chicago PhD dissertation

Chris Cutrone

Adorno’s Marxism was successfully defended on November 12, 2012 and officially submitted on March 4, 2013. Chris Cutrone graduated from the University of Chicago, receiving the PhD in the Committee on the History of Culture, on March 22, 2013.

Theodor W. Adorno’s writings comprise an attempted recovery of Marx for a dialectic of 20th century social and cultural forms. Through immanent critique of modern aesthetic, philosophical, political and psychological forms of social subjectivity and its antinomies, contradictions and discontents, including those of ostensible Marxism, the thought figures of Adorno’s essays are modeled after and attempt to elaborate Marx’s self-reflexive critique of the subjectivity of the commodity form. Adorno’s critical theory considers modern aesthetic form as social form. Following Marx, Adorno’s critique of modern social forms is concerned with their potential for emancipation as well as domination: the term “culture industry,” for instance, is meant to grasp comprehensively the context for the critical social object and form of aesthetic subjectivity in common for practices of both “hermetic” art and “popular” culture, and is meant to characterize the condition and possibility for critical subjectivity itself, including Adorno’s own. In Adorno’s essays, objects of cultural criticism become “prismatic,” illuminating the formation of subjectivity and providing moments for critical reflection and recognition. However, Adorno’s works faced and sought to provoke recognition of the possibility and reality of social regression as well as regression in thinking. Coming after the collapse of 2nd International Social Democracy in 1914 and the failure of world revolution 1917-19, and inspired by Georg Lukács and Karl Korsch’s thought from this period, Adorno developed a critique of 20th Century society that sustained awareness of the problematic of Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky’s Marxism. The coincidence of the later reception of Adorno’s works with the emergence of social discontents, oppositions and transformations of the 1960s New Left and its aftermath, however, obscured Adorno’s thought during two decades of “postmodernism,” whose exhaustion opens possibilities for reconstruction of and development upon the coherence of Adorno’s dialectic, as expression of the extended tasks and project of Marxism bequeathed by history to the present. [PDF March 2013]

CPGB contra Lukács

Communist Party of Great Britain (Provisional Central Committee)
contra Georg Lukács

James Turley, Chris Cutrone, Lawrence Parker

Originally published in Weekly Worker January 24 – March 14, 2013. [PDF]

articles:

James Turley, “The antinomies of Georg Lukács” 1/24/13

Chris Cutrone, “Regression” 1/31/13

James Turley, “Dummy” 2/21/13

Chris Cutrone, “Nota bene” 2/28/13

James Turley, “Bacon” 3/7/13

Lawrence Parker, “Lukács reloaded” 3/7/13

Chris Cutrone, “Unreloaded” 3/14/13