Class Consciousness (Part IV and V)
Georg Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, Rodney Livingstone trans., Cambridge and Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1971.
In the Fourth Part of this essay, Lukacs at first announces the unique function of consciousness in the class struggle of the proletariat. In the first paragraph, he describes the bourgeoisie and the proletariat are mutually interdependent both ideologically and economically. Lukacs then points out that in the same process, namely the struggle for consciousness, the bourgeoisie would decay and the proletariat would achieve the final success. This struggle means in the capitalist society the proletariat would come to know the nature of the society, and through this knowledge, the proletariat would get to know the social status and economic conditions of themselves. Thus, they would transform from the unconsciousness into conscio...
Class Consciousness (Part IV and V)
Georg Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, Rodney Livingstone trans., Cambridge and Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1971.
In the Fourth Part of this essay, Lukacs at first announces the unique function of consciousness in the class struggle of the proletariat. In the first paragraph, he describes the bourgeoisie and the proletariat are mutually interdependent both ideologically and economically. Lukacs then points out that in the same process, namely the struggle for consciousness, the bourgeoisie would decay and the proletariat would achieve the final success. This struggle means in the capitalist society the proletariat would come to know the nature of the society, and through this knowledge, the proletariat would get to know the social status and economic conditions of themselves. Thus, they would transform from the unconsciousness into consciousness of the social class in which they are conditioned. When the proletariat become conscious of their own social condition, the consciousness or the knowledge of their own social status and economic conditions would become the driving force of revolution.
This argument seems to remind us the Dialectic of Master and Servant in Hegel’s Phenomenology. Hegel would say through work the servant would become self-conscious and this self-consciousness could be the impetus of the dialectical movement, which ends up with the servant becomes the master of the master and the master becomes the servant of the servant. This argument is also similar to what K. Marx says in his The Communist Manifesto, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind”. In this celebrated sentence, the first-half part means the capitalism has dissolved religion and feudal hierarchy into pure productive relation. And the second-half part tells us the consequence of this process. I think the point lies in the so-called “sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind”. Marx may want to say the capitalism makes both the proletariat and the class consciousness of the proletariat. Thus, we could conclude that with the development of capitalism, the bourgeoisie would come into history, but at the same time its enemy, the proletariat, also arises. Back to Lukacs, we could conclude in some sense the proletariat would be the object of history, but at the same time they could be the subject of their own history. There is a potential identity between subject and object, which reflects the influence of German Idealism in Lukacs’ thoughts.
From this point of view, we could understand the reason why Lukacs says “the proletariat and only the proletariat can discern in the correct understanding of the nature of society a power-factor of the first, and perhaps decisive importance”. (p. 68) And then he criticizes the vulgar Marxism, which ignores the importance of this point.
Lukacs says vulgar Marxism doesn’t grasp the class consciousness as the decisive power, so it put itself on the same level of consciousness of the bourgeoisie. I think here Lukacs means when vulgar Marxism considers the economic conditions as the decisive power of social revolution, it would be clear to make this conclusion that the bourgeoisie could be superior to the proletariat economically. This view ignores the dialectic paradox between ideology and economic conditions, thus it underpins the conceptions of bourgeoisie in another way. Thus, from vulgar Marxism, we would have the conclusion that the proletariat also fails ideologically.
Above all, we could say from Lukacs’ view, the absurd of vulgar Marxism lies in this point, from which vulgar Marxists consider the proletariat are driven or dominated by subject-independent social laws. Thus, vulgar Marxism cut off the nerve between the theory and practice. The proletariat could have a theory but they could not put it into practice. In short, vulgar Marxism ignores the so-called concrete totality as well. In fact, Lukacs doesn’t use this concept yet in this part of the essay. But he definitely expresses the same view. He then points out the proletariat are able to “see society from the center, as a coherent whole”. (p. 69) It further means when the proletariat get the class consciousness, the theory and practice would coincide and the proletariat would consciously throw the weight of its action onto the scales of history.
After Lukacs’ reconstruction of the relationship between theory and practice, namely his correction of vulgar Marxism, he further explains the “false consciousness”. “Consciousness”, just like what we have explained above, means the bourgeoisie and the proletariat’s cognition of their social status and economic conditions. “false consciousness” here especially means the class consciousness of the bourgeoisie. I think we could read it in two ways. On one hand, we could say from Lukacs’ view, limited by their class, the bourgeoisie could not get to know the reality of their own social status and economic conditions. Their class consciousness thus is a kind of self-deceiving. On the other hand, we could infer that Lukacs here means the class consciousness of the bourgeoisie is false to the proletariat.
The first meaning would remind us that the class consciousness of the proletariat should, would and could sublate the contradictions internal to the consciousness of the bourgeoisie. And the second meaning would remind us the class consciousness of the proletariat should coincide with their own economic situation. Synthesizing these two points, we could understand Lukcas’ saying “The proletariat must act in a proletarian manner” (p. 68) and we could also add a precondition that the proletarian must have the class consciousness of the proletariat. From this point of view, it seems to me that there is a dualism within Lukacs’ class consciousness theory: On one hand, the class consciousness of the proletariat would sublate many contradictions, which are internal to our mind and born with the class consciousness of the bourgeoisie. On the other hand, the class consciousness of the proletariat would deal with the relationship between the mind or our own consciousness and the social context. If I am right here, there would be much similar to what Hegel has said in his Phenomenology. In Hegel’s description of the process of our cognition, he puts up with a kind of dualism, too. He first makes a distinction between the knower and the known, namely the subject and the mind-independent object. He considers we could not get to know the thing-in-itself, but thing-for-us. That is to say what we know is what is provided in our experience. When the object comes into our experience, he then makes another distinction within the subject’s consciousness. We have a kind of theory or concept internal to our mind to grasp the thing-for-us. Thus, the truth lies in the coincide between the theory and the thing-for-us or our experience. Their relationship is not fixed but circular: the theory or concept would influence our cognition of the experience, and the latter would make us change and improve our theory or concept.
Compared this view with Lukacs’, we may say the class consciousness of the proletariat has two functions or tasks: the first one is to sublate the contradictions within consciousness, and the second one is to make the class consciousness arise out of and response to social context or our experience. The social context would test the class consciousness, and the consciousness would influence us the view about the social context. If our inference here is not so far away from the spirit of Lukacs’ point, we may also get two more conclusions: first, to grasp the class consciousness of the proletariat is not a process one and for all but a historical one. Second, in Lukacs’ mind, the so-call materialism is a kind of description of the relationship between the theory and social context. This concept represents a kind of philosophy or theory deeply rooted in its own historical circumstances, even much deeper than what Hegel said in his Rechtsphilosophie, “Only when dusk starts to fall, does the owl of the Minerva spread its wings and fly”.
In the Fifth Part of this essay, Lukacs points out there are obstacles which prevent the proletarian consciousness being realized in practice. The first obstacle is this consciousness is divided within itself. This obstacle especially shows itself in the separation of the economic struggle from the political one. The reason lies in “the dialectical separation of immediate objectives and ultimate goal and, hence, in the dialectical division within the proletarian revolution itself.” (p. 71) Lukacs says the history entrusts the proletariat with the task of transforming the society consciously. Hence there is a dialectical contradiction between its immediate interest and its long-term objectives. The immediate interest is concrete demands integral into the capitalist society. “it is governed by the laws of that society and is subject to its economic structure”. (p. 71) What the proletariat should do is to integrate this immediate interest into a total view and the final goal of the sublating the capitalist society. Only in this way can the proletariat be revolutionary.
From this point, Lukacs considers that the revolutionary victory of the proletariat is not the realization of their immediate interest as a class in capitalist society, but a totally abolishment of the whole capitalism. In this way, the separation between economic struggle and the political one has vanished and the proletarian consciousness has become a united one again. Lukacs further points out just because the proletariat have to supersede the superficial contradictions or the immediately given, it is very hard for the proletariat to develop a different consciousness from the bourgeoisie. The proletariat would always have a kind of “false consciousness”, but it has pointed to the truth, which means we should consider the false consciousness as a necessarily dialectical process to the “true” consciousness of the proletariat. The method of this dialectical transformation is conscious action and conscious self-criticism.
From this analysis, Lukacs may want to emphasize two points: the first is the immediate interest of the proletariat may either function as a step towards to the ultimate goal or the mask of it. “Which of the two depends entirely upon the class consciousness of the proletariat and not on victory or defeat in isolated skirmishes.” (p. 73) The reason is in a capitalist society all contradictions are not external but within the consciousness of the proletariat. Thus “the class consciousness is neither identical with the psychological consciousness of individual members of the proletariat, nor with the consciousness of the proletariat as a whole. It is the sense, become conscious, of the historical role of the class.” (p. 73)
When we clarify the meaning of the class consciousness of the proletariat, we could find the second obstacle preventing class consciousness from being realized. It is the opportunism, which mistakes the actual, psychological state of consciousness of proletarians for the class consciousness of the proletariat. (p. 74) This confusion may lead to the error that transforming the different limbs of society into so many separate societies and the class consciousness of the proletariat loses the ability to look beyond the divisive symptoms of the economic process to the unity of the total social system underlying it. In the process of crisis, the unity of the economic process moves within reach, which provides an opportunity for the proletariat to be aware of their own class consciousness. But at the same time, the opportunism “would reduce the class consciousness of the proletariat to the level of the psychologically given and thus to divert into the opposite direction”, (p. 75) namely still considering the society not as a whole, but as constituted with different separate parts.
Besides, Lukacs says “that class consciousness has no psychological reality does not imply that it is a mere fiction. Its reality is vouched for by its ability to explain the infinitely painful path of the proletarian revolution, with its many reverses, its constant return to its starting-point and the incessant self-criticism of which Marx speaks in the celebrated passage in The Eighteenth Brumaire.” (p. 75-76)
At last several paragraphs, Lukacs explains to us the “reified consciousness”. Lukacs considers “as the product of capitalism the proletariat must necessarily be subject to the modes of existence of its creator”. (p. 75) And this mode of existence is inhumanity and reification. Lukacs points out that because the proletariat themselves are the antagonists of the bourgeoisie, the existence of the proletariat itself is a kind of criticism and the negation of the inhumanity and reification. But if the proletariat want to criticize the whole capitalist society, they could not be limited in the standpoint of capitalism, which means only if the objective crisis of capitalism has matured and the proletariat obtain the true class consciousness, could the proletariat emancipate themselves. And before this Judgment Day, the class consciousness of the proletariat is subject to the reification, which leads to the criticism to the capitalism separated into various parts, such as economic, political and cultural fields. (p. 76-77)
Here we could clarify the meaning of the “reified consciousness”. The first step is to understand the concept “reification”. From my point of view, this concept is used by Lukacs to some degree in the same sense as K. Marx’s alienation, but different from Hegel’s point in Rechtsphilosophie. Hegel uses alienation in the “Abstract Law” to refer to the process in which the possession of a thing is transferred between different subjects. He points out that what we transfer is not the will in the thing, but the value behind it. Thus, this transfer is not related to the will of the subject. But I think Marx says something different. From his point, alienation means when we want to cognize ourselves, we should have a mediation, then our mediated consciousness goes back to ourselves. If the consciousness could not go back to ourselves, namely the mediation completely becoming the object outside our subjective will, it is a kind of alienation (for example, the commodity fetishism). I think what Lukacs means here is the same as Marx’s. Because of our consciousness could not go back to ourselves from the mediation, then we could not obtain the self-consciousness, which certainly means we could not have true class consciousness yet. However, in my opinion, a far more important point here is maybe Marx and Lukacs both misunderstands Hegel. What they say about alienation in fact is a process of objectification in Hegel’s sense. And we still need to point out that in Hegel’s sense, objectification is not a sufficient but a necessary condition of alienation in Marx and Lukacs’ sense.
When we clarify the “reification”, we could conclude that so-called reified consciousness in fact points to such a situation in which the consciousness of the proletariat is limited or subject to objective institutions which seems totally external to the subject. Then the consciousness could not come back to the proletariat. Hence the proletariat could not be aware that they are both the subject and object of history. That is to say, in fact the capitalist institutions or the whole society are not something external or independent from subjective will and when the proletariat obtain the true class consciousness, the society and the proletariat stay in the identity of subject and object, or the identity within the difference. But now, from Lukcas’ view, the class consciousness is reified, thus this identity has broken into two parts: on one hand, it is empiricism and on the other hand it is utopianism. Empiricism has ignored the subjective will and considers the society as the mind-independent object, which is dominated by eternal laws and beyond the control of the proletariat. Utopianism has ignored the objective capitalist institutions and considers the subjective will as the master of the essentially meaningless motion of objects. (p. 77) Although they are opposite with each other, but from what we have analyzed, they have made the same mistake. Hence Lukacs would say “they are frequently found together and are joined by an internal bond”. (p. 77)
After pointing out the mistake of empiricism and utopianism, Lukacs argues because consciousness could be the driving force of the revolution, then the critique of the false theory could have a practical meaning. Marx first did this in the philosophy and he transformed the consciousness from the other world into this world and considered it as one stage to change the world. (p. 78) Thus Lukacs thinks the mistake of utopianism is there is a dualism within this theory. The consciousness approaches society from another world and leads it from the false path. And at the same time, Lukacs is also clear that we could not dismiss utopianism, because the identity of practice and theory is only obtained in the theory described by Marx.
Thus, the central consideration of Lukacs in this essay has showed up. Lukacs wants to solve the problem that how the class consciousness becomes realized. He says, “the objective theory of class consciousness, is the theory of its objective possibility”. (p. 79) According the social revolution at his time, Lukacs points out the revolutionary workers’ council could be a form for developing class consciousness. At the same time, he is also aware that the council could be far away from the authentic class consciousness of the proletariat. But he doesn’t consider it as a serious problem because Marx has pointed out that “The proletariat only perfects itself by annihilating and transcending itself, by creating the classless society through the successful conclusion of its own class struggle.” (p. 80) That is to say, the revolution of the proletariat per se is the struggle of the proletariat against itself: against the devastating and degrading effects of the capitalist system upon its class consciousness. Thus, the absence of class consciousness is not the fatal defect of the proletarian revolution, but the final goal of it, and the method, if there is any, is the self-criticism of the proletariat.