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Georg Lukacs: Lessons for struggle today

Doug Enaa Greene's lecture on Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukacs (1885-1971) and the lessons we can use for today's struggles. The work of Lukacs, who was one of the preeminent communist philosophers of the last century, offers valuable insight on how revolutionaries understand the nature of capitalism, political organising and strategy. Presented to the Center for Marxist Education.

By Doug Enaa Greene

July 1, 2015 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- It is commonplace on the far left today to say that the Leninist vanguard party is an outmoded concept which has only produced catastrophes and abject failures. This is supposedly confirmed by looking at the fate of the Soviet Union, the Eastern European People's Democracies and communist parties across the world. We are told by pundits from left to right that this is proof of the “end of history” and that the only politics on hand is either capitalism “with a human face” or the pseudo-radical alternative of changing the world “without taking power”.

However, the financial collapse of 2008 and the resulting radical, anti-austerity and revolutionary upsurges from Egypt to Greece to Spain and Occupy Wall Street have again brought to the forefront many of the questions long thought buried – the nature of capitalist ideology, the limits of spontaneity, the role of Marxist theory and the need for revolutionary political organisations deeply rooted in mass struggles that can lead the conquest of power.

Far from being passe, Marxist and Leninist theory and practice remain strikingly relevant. It is in this context that the writings and ideas of the communist militant and philosopher Georg Lukacs, who wrote in far different times than ours, should be unearthed and critically studied for insights that can guide our current practice.

The actuality of revolution

Georg Lukacs was born not only into privilege, being the son of prominent Hungarian banker, but he was gifted with a brilliant mind and was one of the great intellectuals, literary critics and philosophers of the 20th century. Lukacs was not a member of the pre-war social-democratic parties, he was closer to tragically minded romanticism than socialism, but like others of his generation he was radicalised by the slaughter of World War I and the triumph of the Russian Revolution. Following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, Lukacs joined the newly formed Hungarian Communist Party (HCP) -- he was one of the first 100 members.

From March through August of 1919, Lukacs was a prominent figure in the short-lived Soviet Republic of Hungary. He served as the People's Commissar for Education and Culture where he would later be accused by anti-communists of destroying Hungarian culture with such dastardly acts as expropriating  artwork from the bourgeoisie to make it available to masses, mobilising writers and filmmakers to produce for the people and, “worst” of all, ensuring that hungry school children began their day with breakfast as opposed to prayers.

Lukacs was also a front line commissar for the Fifth Division of the Hungarian Red Army, where he was exposed to enemy fire and won the loyalty of the soldiers under his command. Following the collapse of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, Lukacs continued to work in the underground HCP as a writer, organiser and was a leading member of the Central Committee. Following the rejection of his “Blum Theses” (opposed to the majority line of the HCP) in 1929, Lukacs retreated from active political life.

During this period of intense political involvement, Lukacs wrote several major works, such as History and Class Consciousness – one of the most famous works of Marxist philosophy, which  developed the central themes of historical materialism, ideology, political practice from a Leninist perspective. The work was condemned by leading members of the Communist Internnational, such as: Grigorii Zinoviev, Nikolai Bukharin; Bela Kun, leader of the Hungarian CP; Soviet philosophers Abram Deborin and by Lazslo Rudas; and social democrats such as Karl Kautsky. Lukacs was accused of subjectivism, idealism and rejecting the central tenets of historical materialism.

Zinoviev went so far as to exclaim:

If we get more of these professors spinning out their Marxist theories, we shall be lost. We cannot tolerate theoretical revisionism of this kind in our Communist International.

However, Lukacs defended the central theses of his work in A Defense of History Class Consciousness: Tailism and the Dialectic, written in 1926 and only published in English in 2000. These works, including his 1924 treatise, Lenin: A Study in the Unity of His Thought, remain at the core of Lukacs' effort to revitalise Marxist theory for the challenges ahead. Marxist historian Michael Lowy says that Lukacs' work of this period was “the expression of a period of revolts, insurrections, general strikes, and workers’ councils, a period of revolutionary upsurge through Europe”.[1]

Lukacs himself would later self-criticise his positions in the early 1930s and repudiate the central ideas of History and Class Consciousness. In a 1967 preface to the work Lukacs said it was ultra-left, idealistic and overly Hegelian. He also recognised that capitalism had entered a phase of relative stabilisation, that the time of revolutionary assaults had ended and become a defender of the Soviet line to build socialism in one country. Even though the work was condemned by Lukacs, the Comintern and varying schools of “official Marxism”, it has achieved the reputation as an underground classic and was only translated into English in 1971.

While Lukacs' work has influenced different philosophers ranging from Jean-Paul Sartre to the Frankfurt School, it is not just a philosophical work, but a political and activist text concerned with proletarian revolution against capitalist exploitation. The questions that Lukacs deals with – how class consciousness develops, the dialectical relation of class consciousness to political organisation, and how to use the knowledge of the class struggle to make a revolution – these are very much contemporary problems.


One of the major concepts developed by Lukacs in History and Class Consciousness is that of “reification”. Reification is actually an independent discovery by Lukacs of Marx's idea of alienation found in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (which would not be unearthed until 1932) and builds upon the “fetishism of commodities” found in the first chapter of Das Kapital volume 1. Lukacs goes so far as to say that

commodity fetishism is a specific problem of our age, the age of modern capitalism... What is at issue here, however, is the question: how far is commodity exchange together with its structural consequences able to influence the total outer and inner life of society?[2]

Lukacs is at pains to point out that the question of commodities and reification must not be looked at solely from the angle of economics:

That is to say, the problem of commodities must not be considered in isolation or even regarded as the central problem in economics, but as the central, structural problem of capitalist society in all its aspects.[3]

Rather, vulgar Marxists make the mistake of looking at commodities as an economic category, when the commodity must be looked at within capitalist society in its overall totality (a term we will return to).

Lukacs defines reification as “a relation between people [that] takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a ‘phantom objectivity’, an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people”.[4]

Thus things are inverted, workers don't see the social relations of capital and labour (between people), instead they see society as governed by the domination of commodities and their mysterious laws. Furthermore, under capitalist reification, once commodities along with profits, exchange and markets become hegemonic, they take on a life of their own and proceed to govern all aspects of society even though they were originally the historical products created by humanity.

Thus capitalist society, more than any other, is governed by the logic of commodity exchange and profits. So what does that mean for the consciousness of workers living under it? Lukacs elaborates two sides to this:

There is both an objective and a subjective side to this phenomenon. Objectively a world of objects and relations between things springs into being (the world of commodities and their movements on the market). The laws governing these objects are indeed gradually discovered by man, but even so they confront him as invisible forces that generate their own power. The individual can use his knowledge of these laws to his own advantage, but he is not able to modify the process by his own activity. Subjectively -- where the market economy has been fully developed -- a man’s activity becomes estranged from himself, it turns into a commodity which, subject to the non-human objectivity of the natural laws of society, must go its own way independently of man just like any consumer article.[5]

The subjective and objective parts of reification work together on the consciousness of the worker, turning the ability to labour and create into something dominated by the profit motive. Workers are reduced to being alienated beings and strictly valued by the only commodity they possess – labour power.

The basic principle governing capitalists is “rationalisation based on what is and can be calculated”.[6] And looking into the modern factory and production, Lukacs said that there is a trend

towards greater rationalisation, the progressive elimination of the qualitative, human and individual attributes of the worker. On the one hand, the process of labour is progressively broken down into abstract, rational, specialised operations so that the worker loses contact with the finished product and his work is reduced to the mechanical repetition of a specialised set of actions. On the other hand, the period of time necessary for work to be accomplished (which forms the basis of rational calculation) is converted, as mechanisation and rationalisation are intensified, from a merely empirical average figure to an objectively calculable work-stint that confronts the worker as a fixed and established reality.[7]

The results of reification can be seen in the development of Taylorism, deskilling, the assembly line and the time clock, which reduce the worker to an appendage of a machine. Lukacs goes so far as to say that capitalist reification and alienation “extends right into the worker’s ‘soul’.”[8]

Yet reification extends far beyond the factory into all aspects of society – the state, laws, art, sex and culture. Lukacs, quoting Max Weber, says that:

The modern capitalist concern is based inwardly above all on calculation. It system of justice and an administration whose workings can be rationally calculated, at least in principle, according to fixed general laws, just as the probable performance of a machine can be calculated.[9]

The capitalist state and bureaucracy is itself cold and rational, imposing the dictates of profit:

the formal standardisation of justice, the state, the civil service, etc., signifies objectively and factually a comparable reduction of all social functions to their elements, a comparable search for the rational formal laws of these carefully segregated partial systems. Subjectively, the divorce between work and the individual capacities and needs of the worker produces comparable effects upon consciousness. This results in an inhuman, standardised division of labour analogous to that which we have found in industry on the technological and mechanical plane.[10]

There is no pursuit of human endeavour under capitalism that is not governed by the cash nexus. Those who know the rules of the capitalist game can play it well and screw over whomever they need to in order to get ahead. The system itself requires for its very functioning that people be reduced to commodities. Yet it is a system that no one can really control – whether you are a worker, capitalist or a small shopkeeper. Capitalism is governed by its own laws and crises that seemingly lie outside of its control.

As Lukacs says:

The capitalist process of rationalisation based on private economic calculation requires that every manifestation of life shall exhibit this very interaction between details which are subject to laws and a totality ruled by chance. It presupposes a society so structured. It produces and reproduces this structure in so far as it takes possession of society.[11]

Yet capitalist society, Lukacs argues, cannot be reduced to the economic. The capitalist division of labour breaks down the previous interconnectedness of society and leads to the development of relatively autonomous spheres, that while clearly having their roots in the economic structure cannot be reduced to it:

This has the effect of making these partial functions autonomous and so they tend to develop through their own momentum and in accordance with their own special laws independently of the other partial functions of society (or that part of the society to which they belong).[12]

And while bourgeois society “rests in the last analysis on force, no class rule can, ultimately, maintain itself for long by force alone”[13] since bourgeois society, especially under a democratic facade, needs the active or tacit support of the population:

It is, however, only the political culmination of a social system whose other elements include the ideological separation of economics and politics, the creation of a bureaucratic state apparatus which gives large sections of the petty bourgeoisie a material and moral interest in the stability of the state, a bourgeois party system, press, schools system, religion, etc. With a more or less conscious division of labour, all these further the aim of preventing the formation of an independent ideology among the oppressed classes of the population which would correspond to their own class interests; of binding the individual members of these classes as single individuals, as mere ‘citizens’, to an abstract state reigning over and above all classes; of disorganizing these classes as classes and pulverizing them into atoms easily manipulated by the bourgeoisie.[14]

Thus reification and alienation are part of the total system of capitalism by fragmenting and atomising our view of the world. Instead of the real social relations that confront us, we see only bits and pieces in isolation. Instead of a total picture of our society, we have a partial one where economics is separate from politics, which is separated from gender, and separated from racism, etc. And reification also makes capitalist relations appear as fixed natural and eternal, since they have escaped our control, and now seemingly rule over us.

The fragmentation that reification produces even extends into various “radical” and impoverished “Marxist” currents.

To give a personal example, I remember when members of the Occupy Movement marched for justice for the murdered black youth Trayvon Martin, some said this was a “distraction” from the fight against class inequality. These activists had a fragmented view of consciousness and were unable to perceive how class and race connect. Another example occurred during the summer of 2014 during Israel's war against Gaza. There were self-proclaimed Marxists who refused to come out in support of the Palestinian struggle for fear of “alienating” Jewish Israeli workers. This class reductionism was dressed up in “Marxist” colours, but it is really a reflection of a bourgeois standpoint. These two examples could be extended to many more.

Ultimately the picture that Lukacs paints of capitalist reification that dominates our lives and warps our thinking is quite frightening. Reification goes down to our very souls. We are ruled by forces outside of our power and control.

So can we overcome it or are we doomed to endure capitalist rule forever? It is to Lukacs' dealing with that question to which we now turn. 

Standpoint of the proletariat

So is our position hopeless? Is there a way out of capitalism and reification?

Lukacs discounts that such a solution can be found within bourgeois ideology. For although the bourgeoisie rules society and exploits the proletariat, they are unable to prevent economic crises or to subject the contradictions of capitalism to rational control. Further, the fragmentation of consciousness produced by reification means that the bourgeoisie cannot understand the totality of capitalism. In order for the bourgeois to overcome the contradictions of capitalism, it would require a standpoint other than their own. But since the capitalists imagine their system as eternal and natural, at best they are only willing to offer reformist solutions. Lukacs outlines the problem as follows:

For the bourgeoisie was quite unable to perfect its fundamental science, its own science of classes: the reef on which it foundered was its failure to discover even a theoretical solution to the problem of crises. The fact that a scientifically acceptable solution does exist is of no avail. For to accept that solution, even in theory, would be tantamount to observing society from a class standpoint other than that of the bourgeoisie. And no class can do that – unless it is willing to abdicate its power freely. Thus the barrier which converts the class consciousness of the bourgeoisie into "false" consciousness is objective; it is the class situation itself. It is the objective result of the economic set-up, and is neither arbitrary, subjective nor psychological. The class consciousness of the bourgeoisie may well be able to reflect all the problems of organisation entailed by its hegemony and by the capitalist transformation and penetration of total production. But it becomes obscured as soon as it is called upon to face problems that remain within its jurisdiction but which point beyond the limits of capitalism.[15]

Is this not true of how the bourgeoisie confronted the economic crisis of 2008? Bourgeois politicians of “left” and right present the problem not as one of capitalism as a system, but as too much spending, reckless investments, corporate greed, etc. And the solutions on the table range from imposing crushing austerity on the working class or returning to a Keynesian welfare state.

Yet none of them confront the source of the crisis – the capitalist system – or present an alternative beyond its confines. The bourgeoisie are unwilling and unable to do so without betraying their class position and only modifications to capitalism are offered as opposed to its overthrow.

That means another standpoint other than that of the bourgeoisie is needed to in order escape from capitalism. So what is that standpoint?

For one, Lukacs rejects individualistic solutions, stating:

The individual can never become the measure of all things. For when the individual confronts objective reality he is faced by a complex of ready-made and unalterable objects which allow him only the subjective responses of recognition or rejection. Only the class can relate to the whole of reality in a practical revolutionary way.[16]

It is only by adopting another class position which puts on the agenda a future without capitalism, so long as it breaks with reified forms of thought, since these other solutions only reproduce the immediacy of capitalism. The only class standpoint that Lukacs says can understand and overthrow the capitalist system belongs to that of the proletariat.

The proletariat, according to Lukacs, is forged into a class through capitalist exploitation. Capitalist enterprises break down craft production, develop modern industry, and eliminate the isolated individual. This means that “workers can become conscious of the social character of labour, it means that the abstract, universal form of the societal principle as it is manifested can be increasingly concretised and overcome”.[17] The proletariat learns through its exploitation (such as wage cuts, long hours, lack of safety conditions, etc) that the bourgeoisie just wants to use them to maximise profit. This means that questions of economic rationality are experienced differently by the proletariat as opposed to the bourgeoisie.

Unlike the capitalists, the proletariat possesses a unique vantage point from which to understand the totality of society. Once it understands its exploitation, the proletariat then takes the first step towards overcoming it. The very nature of the capitalist economy, with its ceaseless exploitation of the proletariat and its collective situation draws workers together in a common struggle. And this is where the potential power of the proletariat comes from – no other class is so centrally placed to bring capitalist society to a standstill. When the proletariat possesses this knowledge, it moves from being a passive object to an active subject.

For the proletariat to become a revolutionary subject, this means that it views society not in reified terms, but in its totality.

It was necessary for the proletariat to be born for social reality to become fully conscious. The reason for this is that the discovery of the class-outlook of the proletariat provided a vantage point from which to survey the whole of society. With the emergence of historical materialism there arose the theory of the “conditions for the liberation of the proletariat” and the doctrine of reality understood as the total process of social evolution.[18]

Unlike bourgeois thought which is necessarily fragmented and reified, Lukacs says that Marxism is defined by its understanding of totality:

It is not the predominance of economic motives in the interpretation of society which is the decisive difference between Marxism and bourgeois science, but rather the point of view of totality. The category of totality, the all-round, determining domination of the whole over the parts is the essence of the method which Marx took over from Hegel and, in an original manner, transformed into the basis of an entirely new science.[19]

The Marxist view of totality reveals society's underpinnings, breaking through the veil of reification, and allows the proletariat to see what they are fighting against.

However, viewing society in its totality is not just something that happens in theory, but it also occurs in practice. As Lukacs says,

the self-understanding of the proletariat is therefore simultaneously the objective understanding of the nature of society. When the proletariat furthers its own class-aims it simultaneously achieves the conscious realisation of the – objective – aims of society, aims which would inevitably remain abstract possibilities and objective frontiers but for this conscious intervention.[20]

Therefore, Marxist theory is fused with the practice of revolutionary struggle. And it will be through the revolutionary overturn of capitalism that reification is overcome and communism is established:

The workers’ council spells the political and economic defeat of reification. In the period following the dictatorship it will eliminate the bourgeois separation of the legislature, administration and judiciary. During the struggle for control its mission is twofold. On the one hand, it must overcome the fragmentation of the proletariat in time and space, and on the other, it has to bring economics and politics together into the true synthesis of proletarian praxis. In this way it will help to reconcile the dialectical conflict between immediate interests and ultimate goal.[21]

Before moving on, it is necessary to emphasise that Lukacs views the proletariat as not merely fighting for its own particular interests, but for the universal interests for all of the oppressed and exploited under capitalism. According to Lukacs, it is only the working class that can comprehend the totality of capitalist reification and its connections to other oppressions. No other class or group is in a position to comprehend the totality of capitalism or to lead the struggle against it. This means that class is at the center of the struggle against capitalism, but this does not mean reducing Marxism to class, since when the workers gain revolutionary consciousness, they fight for the universal liberation of all.

Lukacs argues from this, that capitalism will never collapse on its own. Thus socialism is not an inevitable development like the morning dawn, as the evolutionary, gradualistic and deterministic Marxism of the Second (and Third) International claimed.

The position is that vulgar Marxist economism denies that violence has a place in the transition from one economic system to another. It bases itself on the "natural laws" of economic development which are to bring about these transitions by their own impetus and without having recourse to a brute force lying "beyond economies".... the demand that socialism be realized by virtue of the immanent laws of economics without recourse to "non-economic" [my note: political intervention -- DG] violence, is effectively synonymous with the eternal survival of capitalist society ....[22]

And vulgar Marxists accept a deterministic view that the situation is not “ripe” for revolutionary struggle, cravenly claiming that the “objective conditions” were not present in order to excuse their own lack of action. Lukacs knows that there will be no final crisis of capitalism, no single apocalypse when it will come crashing down and socialism will be established in its stead. Rather, the bourgeoisie will find a way out, they will reorganise and adjust to new conditions unless there is conscious revolutionary intervention:

Only the consciousness of the proletariat can point the way that leads out of the impasse of capitalism. As long as this consciousness is lacking, the crisis becomes permanent, it goes back to its starting point, repeats the cycle...[23]

If the proletariat doesn't intervene, then the alternative to capitalism is not socialism, but barbarism: “The natural laws of capitalism do indeed lead inevitably to its ultimate crisis but at the end of its road would be the destruction of all civilisation and a new barbarism”.[24]

The party

The picture painted thus far seems to be quite far from our reality. Capitalism still reigns throughout the world. There has been no successful revolutionary assault upon the centres of the bourgeois power. If the working class possesses the qualities that Lukacs believes they do, then what is lacking for their triumph?

Lukacs answers that a revolutionary party is needed: “Organisation is the form of mediation between theory and practice. And, as in every dialectical relationship, the terms of the  relation only acquire concreteness and reality in and by virtue of this mediation”.[25] A communist party is needed, which acts as a mediator to draw together different sections of the working class (who have differing and uneven levels of consciousness) and to forge a united opposition to the ruling class. A party brings workers together and makes them conscious of the history of their struggle and formulates the strategies and tactics that will serve the long-term interests of the proletariat.[26] The party is not only a teacher, but must dialectically play the role of pupil by listening to and learning from the masses.

A party is necessary, Lukacs argues, because the consciousness of the proletariat is uneven. Whether in different countries, unions and industries there are advanced, intermediate, and backward workers. This is a historical result of capitalist development:

For there are not merely national and "social" stages involved but there are also gradations within the class consciousness of workers in the same strata. The separation of economics from politics is the most revealing and also the most important instance of this. It appears that some sections of the proletariat have quite the right instincts as far as the economic struggle goes and can even raise them to the level of class consciousness....These gradations are, then, on the one hand, objective historical necessities, nuances in the objective possibilities of consciousness (such as the relative cohesiveness of politics and economics in comparison to cultural questions). On the other hand, where consciousness already exists as an objective possibility, they indicate degrees of distance between the psychological class consciousness and the adequate understanding of the total situation. These gradations, however, can no longer be referred back to socioeconomic causes. The objective theory of class consciousness is the theory of its objective possibility.[27]

Thus the party is needed to unite the advanced within its ranks, learn from their experiences to devise new tactics and strategy, and transmit them back to the masses in order further develop their class consciousness and draw more into the struggle.

However, the relationship between the party and the working class is not a simple straight line whereby the proletariat grows ever more conscious and moves closer to victory. In fact the process is dialectical with twists, turns, reversals and leaps.

Of course this relationship must be conceived as a relationship between permanently moving moments, as a process... This means that economic being, and, with it, proletarian class consciousness and its organisational forms, find themselves transformed uninterruptedly ... that is why determinations such as level of class consciousness, the sense of historical role are not abstract and formal, not concepts that are fixed for all time, but express concrete relationships in concrete historical situations... This development, this raising of the level of class consciousness is, then, not an endless (or finite) progress, not a permanent advance towards a goal fixed for all time, but itself a dialectical process.[28]

This means that the revolutionary party is in a constant process of development and becoming, never fixed or static. As Lukacs admits, the party will make mistakes in the course of struggle and need to correct them, otherwise it will not succeed in its historic mission.

The party called upon to lead the proletarian revolution is not born ready-made into its leading role: it, too, is not but is becoming. And the process of fruitful interaction between party and class repeats itself – albeit differently – in the relationship between the party and its members.[29]

Lukacs envisions the Leninist party as one not divorced from the masses or standing above them and working on their behalf, or a tiny sect, but fused with them in struggle and striving to unite all who can be united.

A communist organisation, however, can only be created through struggle, it can only be realised if the justice and the necessity of this form of unity are accepted by every member as a result of his own experience.[30]

Far from providing a justification for the bureaucratic and authoritarian “Communist” parties later associated with Moscow, Lukacs is presenting a model of a vibrant, democratic and living revolutionary party. Lukacs explicitly argues against the type of parties with officialdom cut off from the masses:

If the party consists merely of a hierarchy of officials isolated from the mass of ordinary members who are normally given the role of passive onlookers, if the party only occasionally acts as a whole then this will produce in the members a certain indifference composed equally of blind trust and apathy with regard to the day-to-day actions of the leadership. Their criticism will at best be of the post festum variety (at congresses, etc.) which will seldom exert any decisive influence on future actions.

Whereas the active participation of all members in the daily life of the party, the necessity to commit oneself with one’s whole personality to all the party’s actions is the only means by which to compel the leadership to make their resolutions really comprehensible to the members and to convince members of their correctness.[31]

The Communist Party is also the repository of true or ascribed consciousness of the proletariat (what the consciousness of the proletariat would be if it possessed all the facts in regards to the totality of capitalism) as opposed to its actual consciousness.[32] So what makes the consciousness of the proletariat, embodied by the party, “true”? Lukacs says the difference between true and false consciousness is that “one consciousness corresponds to the economic and social position of the class as a totality, while the other sticks at the immediacy of a particular and temporary interest.”.[33] As elaborated above, for true consciousness to be known, this means that there needs to be living party that is constantly learning, teaching, criticising and self-criticising while dialectically interacting with the masses.

Lukacs states that revolutionary class consciousness is not something that emerges spontaneously. Rather, spontaneous struggle runs into limits and can easily be reabsorbed by the system.

It is certainly true that many spontaneous reactions to capitalism are rebellious in kind, and they frequently maintain their subjective oppositional or insurgent intent even when they do not rise above the spontaneous level. Objectively, however, expressions such as these, by remaining spontaneous, generally flow into the system of tendencies that maintain the prevailing regime.[34]

It is necessary for consciousness to break with its immediate horizon and rise to the level of grasping the totality, and once this is done, proletarian consciousness transforms into that of a tribune of the people.

A consciousness familiar with the objective properties of the social totality in its movement, according to the stage of historical development of the time, and the decision with which the deepest needs of the working people are championed, are what raise someone into a tribune. And it was as tribune of the revolution himself that Lenin took up the battle against spontaneity. If Lenin managed to transcend immediacy and gain a clear consciousness of the movement of the social totality, he did so - borne by a deep and embracing love for the oppressed people, such as fills all knowledge with the emotion of outrage and the call to liberation- on the basis of the adequate understanding that has been made possible by the materialist dialectic, by Marxism.[35]

This is something that should be familiar to many veterans of the recent Occupy movement or other anarcho-liberal struggles. In terms of Occupy, there was a spontaneous upsurge of the “99%” against the “1%” that was ahead of the established left organisations. Yet Occupy revealed the limits of a spontaneous struggle that did not reach true consciousness.

While Occupy maintained a continuity of struggle and brought masses of people to join the movement, and build collectivity, it also valued democracy (or horizontialism). Yet horizontalism was often carried to such a fault that any discussion of vertical structures was ruled out.

I would argue that we need some form of vertical structures, in addition to horizontal ones, in order to coordinate, organise and expand our struggles to the national and international levels. And in addition to building the necessary vertical structures and developing leaders, Occupy equally needed to the develop the appropriate forms of accountability and recall. And this puts the question of a communist party on the agenda.[36]

And it should hardly need be said at this point, that Lukacs envisions a different type of party member than that of a bourgeois or reformist party – one of activist professional revolutionaries who devote their lives to the struggle. This is described by Michael Lowy as “an authentic community, it requires the active commitment of the entire personality of its members – an aspect sharply differentiating it from bourgeois political or administrative bodies, whose members are wedded to the whole only by abstract parts of their existence”.[37] This is a lesson that many communists and self-proclaimed “Leninists” forget when they reduce the role of a party activist to selling newspapers.

Lukacs, in summing up the core of Lenin's communist vision and thought, identified it as the “actuality of revolution” when “the proletariat’s struggle for liberation could only be conceived and formulated theoretically when revolution was already on the historical agenda as a practical reality ...”.[38]

Now this does not mean that revolution was something that could be achieved at any single moment or that the situation is always revolutionary. Rather, Lukacs argued that the "actuality of revolution" defined an entire epoch where each single action needs to be related to the overall goal of socialist revolution.

The actuality of the revolution therefore implies study of each individual daily problem in concrete association with the socio-historic whole, as moments in the liberation of the proletariat.[39]

While it is true we don't live in the time of Lukacs, who had experienced the Russian Revolution, but if we as communists don't believe that revolution is a possibility that we are working for, then what is the point of our actions?

This lack of belief in revolution can be seen most clearly with “Maoist” Third Worldism that sees the working class of advanced capitalist societies as “bought off” and “parasites” (facts to the contrary notwithstanding).[40] The practical activity of the majority of Third Worldists living in advanced capitalist societies (where most of them live), thus amounts to little more than cheer-leading foreign struggles and their seemingly “revolutionary” position ultimately becomes a cover for practical defeatism.

Lukacs argued that even if revolution was not on the agenda at a particular moment, the Communist Party still had the task of intervening in the struggles of the masses.

"There is no moment", say the organisational theses of the Third Congress, "when a Communist Party cannot be active." Why? Because there can be no moment where this character of the process, the germ, the possibility of an active influencing of the subjective moments is completely lacking.[41]

Revolution is a result of continual engagement with the masses, to raise their consciousness so that they can undertake their historical mission. And this mission needs to be conducted not only when the struggle is rising to a fever pitch, but in the lulls and dark moments when revolution appears far away – because there is always hope.

One of the common criticisms from communists such as Deborin and Rudas of Lukacs' work is that he was a subjectivist and a voluntarist, who abandoned Marxism. Certainly, some of Lukacs' words, if read in isolation, can be said to give that impression. For instance, at one point, Lukacs states that “There are, then, indeed, instants in the process ('moments') where decision is dependent 'only' on the class consciousness of the proletariat”.[42] However, Lukacs to the contrary said, that it was his critics who were mistaken for not being fully Marxist and Leninist, but actually “tail-ending” the objective conditions.

Lukacs says that this repeats the error of the Second International by providing a fatalistic and deterministic view of Marxism and revolution. In contrast, Lukacs argues that there is a much richer interaction between the subjective and objective conditions than his critics allow. Lukacs believes that the subjective factor has relative autonomy in its interaction with the objective situation. While the subjective factor, on its own, cannot make a revolution, but the successes or failures of the subjective can shape the position in which the working class finds itself in when the revolutionary moment comes – since the struggle and consciousness are both dialectical and do not proceed on an upward slope. Thus the development of the Party and the subjective forces needs to be prepared for the moment to strike by intervening consciously and actively in struggles before the revolution.[43]

In the end, a revolution, argues Lukacs is not only produced by the contradictions of the objective situation, but it has to be consciously made by the party:

The old formulation of the question about "making" the revolution is based on an inflexible, undialectical division between historical necessity and the activity of the relevant party. On this level, where "making" ’the revolution means conjuring it up out of nothing, it must be totally rejected. But the activity of the party in a revolutionary period means something fundamentally different. If the basic character of the times is revolutionary, an acutely revolutionary situation can break out at any moment. The actual time and circumstance are hardly ever exactly determinable. But the tendencies which lead towards it and the principal lines of the correct course of action to be taken when it begins are thereby all the more determinable. The party’s activity is based on this historical understanding. The party must prepare the revolution. In other words, it must on the one hand try to accelerate the maturing of these revolutionary tendencies by its actions (through its influence on the proletariat and other oppressed groups). On the other hand, it must prepare the proletariat for the ideological, tactical, material and organizational tasks that necessarily arise in an acutely revolutionary situation.[44]

When the objective situations reveal themselves as ripe for revolution with contradictions intensifying, the enemy in disarray, then it is time for the party to act. This can be seen during the October Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, Spanish Civil War and many other struggles.

However, the revolutionary "moment" may be only be a brief opening when the opportunity can be seized, and revolutionaries need to act decisively (just think of Lenin's pleas for the Bolsheviks to take power) before their enemies do. If the Party doesn't act or take leadership for fear of the consequences (which by their nature are unknown), then someone else will. Lukacs defines a revolutionary moment as follows:

What is a “moment”? A situation whose duration may be longer or shorter, but which is distinguished from the process that lead up to it in that it forces together the essential tendencies of that process, and demand that a decision be taken over the future direction of that process. That is to say the tendencies reach a sort of zenith, and depending on how the situation concerned is handled, the process on a different direction after the "moment". Development does not occur, then, as a continuous intensification, in which development is favorable to the proletariat, and the day after tomorrow the situation must be more favorable than it is tomorrow, and so on. It means rather that at a particular point, the situation demands that a decision be taken and the day after tomorrow might be too late to make that decision.[45]

A “moment” is when the need of politics, the art of war, strategy and tactics, and leadership become paramount. The theory and practice of both warfare and politics is marked by constant friction. It is also the case that political and military action occurs in the fog of war when all the information is not known and an actor has to be prepared for contingencies. That means to risk defeat since we don’t know everything. It is possible to wait for information to be known and to learn more. But by that time, the 'moment' for action will have passed since the 'owl of Minerva will have flown at dusk,' to use Hegel's expression.

Yet in preparing for a “moment” you develop a plan, train, and strategise. This is how you acquire cadre and leaders who are skilled in critical thinking, strategic sense and attuned to flexibility. And the truth is, your plan no matter what it is or how well thought out is going to be disrupted when you encounter battle or the revolution. No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy. That’s just how things work out. But if you have been training yourself beforehand to think and act critically with the methods of Marxism, then you can adjust your plans and ride the rapids of revolution to victory. Of course there is no guarantee of success even then, but there is no success at all by rigidly following a plan that cannot adjust itself to reality.


Some of the criticisms of Lukacs' work we have already touched upon: that he provided a theoretical justification for the authoritarian policies of the Comintern and the USSR, that he was a subjectivist and a revisionist.

In regards to the first two, we can dismiss them fairly quickly. Nothing in Lukacs' work lends itself to support for a bureaucratised and conservative "Communist" party. While Lukacs' work certainly leaned in the direction of the subjective factor, arguably this made sense in a moment when “revolution was on the agenda”.

Lukacs' advocacy of the possibilities of revolution makes for fresh reading in a moment when many leftists are pessimistic about even considering its possibilities. Although it can be said that Lukacs' own revolutionary optimism ultimately did not hold up in regards to Europe.[46]
In regards to Lukacs' view of the party, the view he presents is not a mirror image of the CPSU in the 1930s, but an ideal for communists to achieve.[47]

Although we cannot but agree with the Marxist historian and activist Paul Le Blanc's observation of the gaps in Lukacs' conception of the party: “In Tailism and the Dialectic there is no discussion of the internal structure and functioning of this vitally important organisation. In other works from this period, Lukacs offers only very general and sometimes ambiguous formulations. There is reference to party leaders and party members, the need for centralisation and discipline, and also the necessity of self-criticism”.[48] Nor does Lukacs really discuss the organisation and functioning of how a socialist or communist society would concretely overcome reification. Yet this was not Lukacs' purpose and considering the limited experience of socialism in Lukacs' day, it may well have been beyond the scope of his work.

Yet the question of Lukacs' inability to develop mediations for the interaction of the party with the masses in a revolutionary society to overcome capitalist reification (as opposed to reproducing it) was highlighted by his student Istvan Meszaros as a major criticism of Lukacs' work. Meszaros says that

Since the political intermediaries – and institutional guarantees – are missing, the gap between the immediacy of socio-political realities and the general programme of Marxism has to be filled by assigning the role of mediation to ethics, by declaring that ethics is a crucial intermediary link in the whole process. Thus the absence of effective mediatory forces is “remedied” by a direct appeal to “reason”, to the “moral pathos of life”, to the “responsibilities of intellectuals”, etc. etc. so that – paradoxical as it might seem – Lukacs finds himself in this respect in the position of “ethical utopianism”, despite his repeated polemics against it, and despite his clear realization that the intellectual roots of ethical utopianism can be pinpointed in the lack of mediations.[49]

This no doubt goes part of the way to explaining Lukacs' inability to develop a political alternative to the rigidity and stagnation of Soviet socialism later in life.

Word needs to be mentioned of Lukacs' relation to Hegel and Marxist humanism. The idealistic effort of arguing that the proletariat is the identical subject-object of history, or to “out-Hegel Hegel” was criticised by Lukacs himself in his 1967 preface to History and Class Consciousness.[50]

In regards to humanism, the French Communist Louis Althusser argued in the 1960s that Marxist humanists (Lukacs was one) were revisionists who were using the cover of humanism to undermine class struggle and Marxism in order to promote a social democratic orientation.

Althusser was correct that humanism was used by the French Communist Party to push a non-revolutionary line, but his criticism of humanism does not apply to Lukacs at all. Whatever else can be said of Lukacs, his writings of the 1920s are an attempt to revitalise Marxist theory and practice by breaking with its deterministic and evolutionary elements. And despite his use of Hegel in that task, Lukacs and Althusser were walking parallel paths in their effort to overcome dogmatism and revisionism within Marxism.

Yet perhaps the biggest handicap of Lukacs' writing is the activist stance he takes and the over-optimistic forecast he presents of the ability for capitalism to endure and the capacity of the proletariat to attain revolutionary consciousness. At one point, Lukacs presents the problem before history as “an ideological crisis which must be solved before a practical solution to the world’s economic crisis can be found”.[51] However capitalism showed itself capable of enduring the Depression, World War II and, so far, the current economic crisis. And the challenges and problems of overcoming reification in post-revolutionary societies were far more daunting than Lukacs' anticipated.


Even though Lukacs' work was written nearly a century ago in very different times – it still reads like a bolt of lightning and revolutionary optimism. Lukacs took on the questions of class consciousness and revolutionary organisation in a way that we can profitably learn from today.

And unlike a great deal of the contemporary left, he not only recognised the need for a revolutionary vanguard, but gave serious consideration based on his own practice and readings of theory about what it would take to win.


[1]   Michael Löwy, Georg Lukács: from Romanticism to Bolshevism (New York: Verso Books, 1979), 189.

[2]   Georg Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1971), 84. Henceforth HCC.

[3]   Ibid. 83.

[4]   Ibid.

[5]   Ibid. 87.

[6]   Ibid. 88.

[7]   Ibid.

[8]   Ibid.

[9]   Ibid. 96.

[10] Ibid. 98-99.

[11] Ibid. 102.

[12] Ibid. 103.

[13] Georg Lukacs, Lenin: A Study in the Unity of his Thought (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1971), 66. Henceforth L.

[14] Ibid. 65.

[15] HCC 53-54.

[16] Ibid. 193.

[17] Ibid. 171.

[18] Ibid. 19-20.

[19] Ibid. 27.

[20] Ibid. 149.

[21] Ibid. 80.

[22] Ibid. 239, 245-6.

[23] Ibid. 76.

[24] Ibid. 282.

[25] Ibid. 299.

[26] Stephen Perkins, Marxism and the Proletariat: A Lukacsian Perspective (London: Pluto Press, 1993), 170.

[27] HCC 78-9.

[28] Georg Lukacs, A Defence of History and Class Consciousness: Tailism and the Dialectic (London: Verso, 2000), 77-8. Henceforth TD.

[29] L 37-8.

[30] HCC 317.

[31] Ibid. 336-7.

[32] TD 71-2.

[33] Ibid. 71 See also Paul Le Blanc's discussion on ascribed and actual consciousness in “Spider and Fly: The Leninist Philosophy of Georg Lukács.” Historical Materialism 21.2 (2013): 65-7.

[34] Georg Lukacs, Essays on Realism (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1981), 202-3.

[35] Ibid. 203.

[36] See Jodi Dean's extended discussion on the relation of Occupy to the Party in The Communist Horizon (New York: Verso, 2012), 207-250 and my “Tribunes of the People,” Kasama Project.

[37] Lowy 1979, 184.

[38] L 11.

[39] Ibid. 13.

[40] For a Maoist discussion on Third Worldism see the following articles at the Kasama project: Part 1: Working class exploitation in the U.S and the error of "parasitism" theory.  ; Part 2 on Parasitism Theory: Identifying a potentially revolutionary social base. ; Part 3: Can we raise the red flag? Or not? ; Part 4: Is there a Third World storm center of revolution today? ; Part 5: "Parasitism theory" and blurring the lines - A reply to Mike Ely. ; Part 6: Getting away from 1950s frameworks.

[41] TD 60-61.

[42] Ibid. 61.

[43] See Le Blanc 2013, 64-65 for discussion on this theme.

[44] L 32.

[45] TD 55.

[46] An extended discussion of various criticisms of Lukacs can be found in the sympathetic work John Rees, The Algebra of Revolution: The Dialectic and the Classical Marxist Tradition (New York: Routledge, 1998), 233-240.

[47] Lowy 184-5.

[48] Le Blanc 2013, 70.

[49] See Istvan Meszaros, “Lukacs' Concept of the Dialectic” in G.H.R. Parkinson, Georg Lukacs: The an, his work and his ideas (New York: Vintage Books, 1970), 77. Also Meszaros' extended critique of HCC in Beyond Capital: Towards a Theory of Transition (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1995), 282–422.

[50] HCC xxiii.

[51] Ibid. 79.

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