Red Letter
Daily Left Theory. 15 Minutes or Less. Refreshes at Midnight.
from Class Consciousness
by Georg Lukacs
Estimated Reading Time: 10 dense minutes

All the central ideas of History and Class Consciousness—reification, dialectic of subject and object, and totality—had their roots in Hegel. The main thesis of the book was that the two terms of its title—history and class consciousness—were in fact one and the same.

David Mclellan, Marxism After Marx

The question is not what goal is envisaged for the time being by this or that member of the proletariat, or even by the proletariat as a whole. The question is what is the proletariat and what course of action will it be forced historically to take in conformity with its own nature.

Marx: The Holy Family.

MARX’S chief work breaks off just as he is about to embark on the definition of class. This omission was to have serious consequences both for the theory and the practice of the proletariat. For on this vital point the later movement was forced to base itself on interpretations, on the collation of occasional utterances by Marx and Engels and on the independent extrapolation and application of their method. In Marxism the division of society into classes is determined by position within the process of production. But what, then, is the meaning of class consciousness? The question at once branches out into a series of closely interrelated problems. "I guess the trouble was that we didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.” —John Steinbeck First of all, how are we to understand class consciousness (in theory)? Second, what is the (practical) function of class consciousness, so understood, in the context of the class struggle? This leads to the further question: is the problem of class consciousness a ‘general’ sociological problem or does it mean one thing for the proletariat and another for every other class to have emerged hitherto? And lastly, is class consciousness homogeneous in nature and function or can we discern different gradations and levels in it? And if so, what are their practical implications for the class struggle of the proletariat?


1. Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy

In his celebrated account of historical materialism 1 Engels proceeds from the assumption that although the essence of history consists in the fact that “nothing happens without a conscious purpose or an intended aim”, to understand history it is necessary to go further than this. For on the one hand, “the many individual wills active in history for the most part produce results quite other than those intended – often quite the opposite; their motives, therefore, in relation to the total result are likewise of only secondary importance. On the other hand, the further question arises: what driving forces in turn stand behind these motives? What are the historical causes which transform themselves into these motives in the brain of the actors?” He goes on to argue that these driving forces ought themselves to be determined in particular those which “set in motion great masses, whole peoples and again whole classes of the people; and which create. a lasting action resulting in a great transformation.” The essence of scientific Marxism consists, then, in the realisation that the real motor forces of history are independent of man’s (psychological) consciousness of them.

At a more primitive stage of knowledge this independence takes the form of the belief that these forces belong, as it were, to nature and that in them and in their causal interactions it is possible to discern the ‘eternal’ laws of nature. As Marx says of bourgeois thought: “Man’s reflections on the forms of social life and consequently also his scientific analysis of those forms, take a course directly opposite to that of their actual historical development. He begins post festum with the results of the process of development ready to hand before him. The characters ... have already acquired the stability of natural self-understood forms of social life, before man seeks to decipher not their historical character (for in his eyes they are immutable) but their meaning.” 2

2. Capitol, Volume 1

This is a dogma whose most important spokesmen can be found in the political theory of classical German philosophy and in the economic theory of Adam Smith and Ricardo. Marx opposes to them a critical philosophy, a theory of theory and a consciousness of consciousness. This critical philosophy implies above all historical criticism. It dissolves the rigid, unhistorical, natural appearance of social institutions; it reveals their historical origins and shows therefore that they are subject to history in every -respect including historical decline. Consequently history does not merely unfold within the terrain mapped out by these institutions. It does not resolve itself into the evolution of contents, of men and situations, etc., while the principles of society remain eternally valid. Nor are these institutions the goal to which all history aspires, such that when they are realised history will have fulfilled her mission and will then be at an end. On the contrary, history is precisely the history of these institutions, of the changes they undergo as institutions which bring men together in societies. Such institutions start by controlling economic relations between men and go on to permeate all human relations (and hence also man’s relations with himself and with nature, etc.).

3. And also of the ’pessimism’ which perpetuates the present state of affairs and represents it as the uttermost limit of human development just as much as does ’optimism’. In this respect (and in this respect alone) Hegel and Schopenhauer are on a par with each other.
4. The Poverty of Philosophy, p. 135.
So much in this paragraph: bourgeois thought chained to defining and defending the status quo, history as a weapon, and the problems of history. One can almost hear the refrains of Thatcher's There is No Alternative and Fukuyama's End of History.

At this point bourgeois thought must come up against an insuperable obstacle, for its starting-point and its goal are always, if not always consciously, an apologia for the existing order of things or at least the proof of their immutability. 3 “Thus there has been history, but there is no longer any,” 4 Marx observes with reference to bourgeois economics, a dictum which applies with equal force to all attempts by bourgeois thinkers to understand the process of history. (It has often been pointed out that this is also one of the defects of Hegel’s philosophy of history.) As a result, while bourgeois thought is indeed able to conceive of history as a problem, it remains an intractable problem. Either it is forced to abolish the process of history and regard the institutions of the present as eternal laws of nature which for ‘mysterious’ reasons and in a manner wholly at odds with the principles of a rational science were held to have failed to establish themselves firmly, or indeed at all, in the past. (This is characteristic of bourgeois sociology.) Or else, everything meaningful or purposive is banished from history. It then becomes impossible to advance beyond the mere ‘individuality’ of the various epochs and their social and human representatives. History must then insist with Ranke that every age is “equally close to God”, i.e. has attained an equal degree of perfection and that-for quite different reasons-there is no such thing as historical development.

5. Ibid., p. 117.
6. Ibid., p. 122.

In the first case it ceases to be possible to understand the origin of social institutions. 5 The objects of history appear as the objects of immutable, eternal laws of nature. History becomes fossilised in a formalism incapable of comprehending that the real nature of socio-historical institutions is that they consist of relations between men. On the contrary, men become estranged from this, the true source of historical understanding and cut off from it by an unbridgeable gulf. As Marx points out, 6 people fail to realise “that these definite social relations are just as much the products of men as linen. flax, etc.”.

In the second case, history is transformed into the irrational rule of blind forces which is embodied at best in the ‘spirit of the people’ or in ‘great men’. It can therefore only be described pragmatically but it cannot be rationally understood. Its only possible organisation would be aesthetic, as if it were a work of art. Or else, as in the philosophy of history of the Kantians, it must be seen as the instrument, senseless in itself, by means of which timeless, supra-historical, ethical principles are realised.

7. Capital I, p. 75 (my italics). Cf. also Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, S.W. 11, pp. 292-3.

8. Capital 1, p. 766. Cf. also Wage Labour and Capital, S.W. II, p. 83; on machines see The Poverty of Philosophy, p. 149; on money, ibid., p. 89, etc.

Marx resolves this dilemma by exposing it as an illusion. The dilemma means only that the contradictions of the capitalist system of production are reflected in these mutually incompatible accounts of the same object. For in this historiography with its search for ‘sociological’ laws or its formalistic rationale, we find the reflection of man’s plight in bourgeois society and of his helpless enslavement by the forces of production. “To them, their own social action”, Marx remarks, 7 “takes the form of the action of objects which rule the producers instead of being ruled by them”. This law was expressed most clearly and coherently in the purely natural and rational laws of classical economics. Marx retorted with the demand for a historical critique of economics which resolves the totality of the reified objectivities of social and economic life into relations between men. Capital and with it every form in which the national economy objectives itself is, according to Marx, “not a thing but a social relation between persons mediated through things”. 8

However, by reducing the objectivity of the social institutions so hostile to man to relations between men, Marx also does away with the false implications of the irrationalist and individualist principle, i.e. the other side of the dilemma. For to eliminate the objectivity attributed both to social institutions inimical to man and to their historical evolution means the restoration of this objectivity to their underlying basis, to the relations between men; it does not involve the elimination of laws and objectivity independent of the will of man and in particular the wills and thoughts of individual men. It simply means that this objectivity is the self-objectification of human society at a particular stage in its development; its laws hold good only within the framework of the historical context which produced them and which is in turn determined by them.

It might look as though by dissolving the dilemma in this manner we were denying consciousness any decisive role in the process of history. It is true that the conscious reflexes of the different stages of economic growth remain historical facts of great importance; it is true that while dialectical materialism is itself the product of this process, it does not deny that men perform their historical deeds themselves and that they do so consciously. But as Engels emphasises in a letter to Mehring, 9 this consciousness is false. However, the dialectical method does not permit us simply to proclaim the ‘falseness’ of this consciousness and to persist in an inflexible confrontation of true and false. On the contrary, it requires us to investigate this ‘false consciousness’ concretely as an aspect of the historical totality and as a stage in the historical process.

9. Dokumente des Sozialismus II, p. 76.

10. The Poverty of Philosophy, p. 112.

Of course bourgeois historians also attempt such concrete analyses; indeed they reproach historical materialists with violating the concrete uniqueness of historical events. Where they go wrong is in their belief that the concrete can be located in the empirical individual of history (’individual’ here can refer to an individual man, class or people) and in his empirically given (and hence psychological or mass-psychological) consciousness. And just when they imagine that they have discovered the most concrete thing of all: society as a concrete totality, the system of production at a given point in history and the resulting division of society into classes – they are in fact at the furthest remove from it. In missing the mark they mistake something wholly abstract for the concrete. “These relations,” Marx states, “are not those between one individual and another, but between worker and capitalist, tenant and landlord, etc. Eliminate these relations and you abolish the whole of society; your Prometheus will then be nothing more than a spectre without arms or legs. ...” 10

Concrete analysis means then: the relation to society as a whole. For only when this relation is established does the consciousness of their existence that men have at any given time emerge in all its essential characteristics. It appears, on the one hand, as something which is subjectively justified in the social and historical situation, as something which can and should be understood, i.e. as ‘right’. At the same time, objectively, it by-passes the essence of the evolution of society and fails to pinpoint it and express it adequately. That is to say, objectively, it appears as a ‘false consciousness’. On the other hand, we may see the same consciousness as something which fails subjectively to reach its self-appointed goals, while furthering and realising the objective aims of society of which it is ignorant and which it did not choose.

11. In this context it is unfortunately not possible to discuss in greater detail some of the ramifications of these ideas in Marxism, e.g. the very important category of the ’economic persona’. Even less can we pause to glance at the relation of historical materialism to comparable trends in bourgeois thought (such as Max Weber’s ideal types).

This twofold dialectical determination of ‘false consciousness’ constitutes an analysis far removed from the naive description of what men in fact thought, felt and wanted at any moment in history and from any given point in the class structure. I do not wish to deny the great importance of this, but it remains after all merely the material of genuine historical analysis. The relation with concrete totality and the dialectical determinants arising from it transcend pure description and yield the category of objective possibility. By relating consciousness to the whole of society it becomes possible to infer the thoughts and feelings which men would have in a particular situation if they were able to assess both it and the interests arising from it in their impact on immediate action and on the whole structure of society. That is to say, it would be possible to infer the thoughts and feelings appropriate to their objective situation. The number of such situations is not unlimited in any society. However much detailed researches are able to refine social typologies there will always be a number of clearly distinguished basic types whose characteristics are determined by the types of position available in the process of production. Now class consciousness consists in fact of the appropriate and rational reactions ‘imputed’ [zugerechnet] to a particular typical position in the process of production.11 This consciousness is, therefore, neither the sum nor the average of what is thought or felt by the single individuals who make up the class. And yet the historically significant actions of the class as a whole are determined in the last resort by this consciousness and not by the thought of the individual – and these actions can be understood only by reference to this consciousness.

Communism Is How We Forcibly Break Apart the Organized Power of the Capitalist Class
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