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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April 2023

A Century of Critical Theory: The Legacy of Georg Lukács (video and audio recordings)

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

Chris Cutrone

Presented on a panel with Andrew Feenberg (Simon Fraser University) and Mike Macnair (Communist Party of Great Britain) at the 15th annual international convention of the Platypus Affiliated Society, held at the University of Chicago on April 1, 2023.

Almost 10 years ago now already, in late 2013, I wrote the following bulk of my remarks, which is taken from a longer essay, “Why still read Lukács? The place of ‘philosophical’ questions in Marxism,” published in early 2014 in The Platypus Review and the Communist Party of Great Britain’s Weekly Worker. Although my fellow panelist Mike Macnair is familiar with my argument, my other interlocutor here, Andrew Feenberg, perhaps is not. Andrew’s early book on Lukács, more recently revised and expanded under the title The Philosophy of Praxis, was very formatively educational for me early on — especially on the Rousseauian roots of Marxism and the “red thread” of dialectics from Kant and Hegel to the Frankfurt School titanium.

I will begin with a polemical jab, or perhaps just a jocular nudge, directed at Mike, about his characterization of Kant and Hegel as expressing a philosophical “counterrevolution” against the Enlightenment, and specifically as against Locke and Hume. Regarding Andrew, the dispute between Mike and me over Lukács might seem a debate over Marxism that might not be especially relevant in the present. I hope to explain my perspective on the simultaneous relevance and irrelevance of Lukács today. As I wrote in one of exchanges with Mike and with the CPGB more generally in their Weekly Worker publication, “the absence of Marxism is a task of Marxism.”

The recovery of Marxism that I think must take place at some point in the future will be over a great chasm of discontinuity and break, of which the present discussion is a symptomatic phenomenon: we are expressions of the very problem that we seek to overcome. I see the gulf between us and Lukács — at least the Lukács of his most significant work from 1923 — as having opened indeed already a century ago, with what has come between since then as muddling the issues and confounding attempts to even address them, presenting a formidable obstacle to making sense of things let alone clearly articulating the problem. Of course, readings of Lukács themselves express the ways we are stuck and prevented from formulating the proper questions to begin with.

The question would be, as I put it 10 years ago, the place of “philosophical questions” in Marxism Download The Sun's Descendantost. Is Marxism a philosophy? Does the struggle for socialism require philosophy, or a specific form of philosophy? This is where the notorious Frankfurt School formulation of “Critical Theory” comes into play, namely, Marxism not as a philosophy but rather a theoretical critique. And a critique not of capitalism merely, but of the struggle for socialism itself, a critical self-consciousness. The issue is what kind?

The aforementioned Frankfurt School considered Marxism to have succumbed in its degeneration to “positivity” and abandoned its negative character — for instance losing the critical recognition of the negative character of the proletarianized working class in capitalism. It had forgotten, as Rosa Luxemburg put it, that the working class had no positive content to oppose to that of capitalism, but stood merely as the “bankruptcy lawyer” to liquidate it — and “liquidate” doesn’t mean eliminate but rather translate its value into another form, transforming its value. In this way, the social revolution of the proletariat was unlike that of any other in history. The proletarian struggle for socialism was unprecedented. This included the unprecedented nature of the tasks of its self-consciousness, especially as “critical.” What was forgotten was not simply the present’s place in the historical process, positively, but what Marx and Engels considered the “prehistorical” character of all history hitherto, how the proletarian struggle for socialism was the final chapter of prehistory and hence negative Chrome Edge. Lukács himself called attention to what he called the “positive and negative dialectics” in Hegel, and associated the latter with Marx and the former with bourgeois society. — Not to be undialectical and simply counterpose them, for the bourgeois positive dialectic must also be fulfilled as well as overcome in socialism!

This meant that Marxism as a political movement itself required a Marxist critique; the crisis of Marxism had to be met by more Marxism, not supplementation from without, philosophical or otherwise. In short, the proletarianized working class’s struggle for socialism required a critical self-consciousness, and Marxism provided this, without which the workers’ economic, political and social struggles would reproduce capitalism and not get beyond it.

Marx had formulated his approach in the critique of the proletarian socialism of his time. Lenin and Luxemburg had critiqued the Marxism of their time Download Kangwon University. For Lukács, the need for this took place in dramatic form when the majority Marxist party, the SPD, conducted the counterrevolution in Germany in 1918- 19, precisely in the name of preserving the workers’ interests — namely, their interests in the existing social system of capitalism. Likewise, Stalinist policies in the USSR could be seen as driven by the needs and interests of the workers in the Soviet Union, and elsewhere in a similar reformist and conservative direction. Eventually, Lukács backed off from his own critical perspective when it threatened to estrange him from the dominant Marxism of his time, namely, Stalinism. The Frankfurt School by contrast maintained Marxism, however partially one-sidedly, as Critical Theory. — As Adorno put it, praxis is the “obsession” of theory.

With all this in mind:

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 [as a Marxist], attempting to follow [the revolutionary Marxists] Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg xbmc 자막 다운로드. Are there “philosophical” lessons to be learned or principles to be gleaned from Lukács’s work, [as from that moment in the history of Marxism,] 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?” [Lukács wrote his work for other Marxists, and this led easily to its theoretical derangement outside of its original proper political context. — One could say this of Marxism in general, and even of Marx’s own writings in particular.]

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.

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? 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.

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. 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, but we do not have occasion to recognize what Lukács regarded as the emptiness of bourgeois social relations of labor, its value evacuated by [apparently] “technical” but not political [or social] transcendence. We have lost sight of the [very] problem of “reification” as Lukács meant it.

As Hegel scholar Robert Pippin has concluded, in a formulation that is eminently agreeable to [Marxism]’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.” 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. Recognizing the potential political abuse of “philosophy” does not mean, however, that we must agree with Heidegger, for instance, 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.” 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, 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. | P