from History & Class Consciousness
Source: History & Class Consciousness.
Publisher: Merlin Press, 1967
Transcribed: Andy Blunden;
HTML Markup: Andy Blunden
IN an old autobiographical sketch (of 1933) I called the story of my early development My Road to Marx. The writings collected in this volume encompass my years of apprenticeship in Marxism. In publishing again the most important documents of this period (1918-1930) my intention is to emphasise their experimental nature and on no account to suggest that they have any topical importance in the current controversies about the true nature of Marxism, In view of the great uncertainty prevailing with regard to its essential content and its methodological validity, it is necessary to state this quite firmly in the interests of intellectual integrity. On the other hand, if both they and the contemporary situation are scrutinised critically these essays will still be found to have a certain documentary value in the present debates. Hence the writings assembled here do more than simply illuminate the stages of my personal development; they also show the path taken by intellectual events generally and as long as they are viewed critically they will not be lacking in significance for an understanding of the present situation.
Of course, I cannot possibly describe my attitude towards Marxism around 1918 without briefly mentioning my earlier development. As I emphasised in the sketch I have just referred to, I first read Marx while I was still at school. Later, around 1908 I made a study of Capital in order to lay a sociological foundation for my monograph on modern drama. At the time, then, it was Marx the ‘sociologist’ that attracted me and I saw him through spectacles tinged by Simmel and Max Weber. I resumed my studies of Marx during World War I, but this time I was led to do so by my general philosophical interests and under the influence of Hegel rather than any contemporary thinkers. Of course, even Hegel’s effect upon me was highly ambiguous. For, on the one hand, Kierkegaard had played a significant role in my early development and in the immediate pre-war years in Heidelberg I even planned an essay on his criticism of Hegel. On the other hand, the contradictions in my social and critical views brought me intellectually into contact with Syndicalism and above all with the philosophy of Georges Sorel. I strove to go beyond bourgeois radicalism but found myself repelled by social-democratic theory (and especially Kautsky’s version of it). My interest in Sorel was aroused by Ervin Szabó, the spiritual mentor of the Hungarian left-wing opposition in Social Democracy. During the war years I became acquainted with the works of Rosa Luxemburg. All this produced a highly contradictory amalgam of theories that was decisive for my thought during the war and the first few years after it.
I think that I would be departing from the truth if I were to attempt to iron out the glaring contradictions of that period by artificially constructing an organic development and fitting it into the correct pigeon-hole in the ‘history of ideas’. If Faust could have two souls within his breast, why should not a normal person unite conflicting intellectual trends within himself when he finds himself changing from one class to another in the middle of a world crisis ? In so far as I am able to recall those years, I, at least, find that my ideas hovered between the acquisition of Marxism and political activism on the one hand, and the constant intensification of my purely idealistic ethical preoccupations on the other.
I find this confirmed when I read the articles I wrote at the time. When I recall my none too numerous and none too important literary essays from that period I find that their aggressive and paradoxical idealism often outdoes that of my earlier works. At the same time the process of assimilating Marxism went on apace. If I now regard this disharmonious dualism as characteristic of my ideas at that period it is not my intention to paint it in black and white, as if the dynamics of the situation could be confined within the limits of a struggle between revolutionary good and the vestigial evil of bourgeois thought. The transition from one class to the class directly opposed to it is a much more complex business than that. Looking back at it now I see that, for all its romantic anti-capitalistic overtones, the ethical idealism I took from Hegel made a number of real contributions to the picture of the world that emerged after this crisis. Of course, they had to be dislodged from their position of supremacy (or even equality) and modified fundamentally before they could become part of a new, homogeneous outlook. Indeed, this is perhaps the moment to point out that even my intimate knowledge of capitalism became to a certain extent a positive element in the new synthesis. I have never succumbed to the error that I have often noticed in workers and petty-bourgeois intellectuals who despite everything could never free themselves entirely from their awe of the capitalist world. The hatred and contempt I had felt for life under capitalism ever since my childhood preserved me from this.
Mental confusion is not always chaos. It may strengthen the internal contradictions for the time being but in the long run it will lead to their resolution. Thus my ethics tended in the direction of praxis, action and hence towards politics. And this led in turn to economics, and the need for a theoretical grounding there finally brought me to the philosophy of Marxism. Of course, all these developments took place slowly and unevenly. But the direction I was taking began to become clear even during the war after the outbreak of the Russian Revolution. The Theory of the Novel was written at a time when I was still in a general state of despair (see my Preface to the New Edition). It is no wonder, then, that the present appeared in it as a Fichtean condition of total degradation and that any hopes of a way out seemed to be a utopian mirage. Only the Russian Revolution really opened a window to the future; the fall of Czarism brought a glimpse of it, and with the collapse of capitalism it appeared in full view. At the time our knowledge of the facts and the principles underlying them was of the slightest and very unreliable. Despite this we saw at last! at last! a way for mankind to escape from war and capitalism. Of course, even when we recall this enthusiasm we must take care not to idealise the past. I myself – and I can speak here only for myself – experienced a brief transitional phase: my last hesitations before making my final, irrevocable choice, were marked by a misguided attempt at an apologia fortified with abstract and Philistine arguments. But the final decision could not be resisted for ever. The little essay Tactics and Ethics reveals its inner human motivations.
It is not necessary to waste many words on the few essays that were written at the time of the Hungarian Soviet Republic and the period leading up to it. Intellectually we were unprepared and I was perhaps less prepared than anyone – to come to grips with the tasks that confronted us. Our enthusiasm was a very makeshift substitute for knowledge and experience. I need mention only one fact by way of illustration: we knew hardly anything of Lenin’s theory of revolution and of the vital advances he had made in that area of Marxism. Only a few articles and pamphlets had been translated and made available at that time, and of those who had taken part in the Russian Revolution some (like Szamuely) had little talent for theory and others (like Bela Kun) were strongly influenced by the Russian left-wing opposition. It was not until my emigration to Vienna that I was able to make a thorough study of Lenin’s theory. The result was that my thought of this period, too, contained an unresolved dualism. It was partly that I was unable to find the correct solution in principle to the quite catastrophic mistakes committed by the opportunists, such as their solution to the agrarian problem which went along purely social-democratic lines. And partly that my own intellectual predilections went in the direction of an abstract utopianism in the realm of cultural politics. Today, after an interval of nearly half a century, I am astounded to find how fruitful our activities were, relatively speaking. (Remaining on the theoretical level I should point out that the first version of the two essays, What is Orthodox Marxism ? and The Changing Function of Historical Materialism, date from this period. They were revised for History and Class Consciousness but their basic orientation remains the same.)
My emigration to Vienna was the start of a period of study. And, in the first instance, this meant furthering my acquaintance with the works of Lenin. Needless to say, this study was not divorced from revolutionary activity for a single moment. What was needed above all was to breathe new life into the revolutionary workers’ movement in Hungary and to maintain continuity: new slogans and policies had to be found that would enable it to survive and expand during the White Terror. The slanders of the dictatorship – whether purely reactionary or social-democratic was immaterial – had to be refuted. At the same time it was necessary to begin the process of Marxist self-criticism of the proletarian dictatorship. In addition we in Vienna found ourselves swept along by the current of the international revolutionary movement. The Hungarian emigration was perhaps the most numerous and the most divided at the time, but it was by no means the only one. There were many emigres from Poland and the Balkans living in Vienna either temporarily or permanently. Moreover, Vienna was an international transit point, so that we were in continuous contact with German, French, Italian and other Communists. In such circumstances it is not surprising that a magazine called Communism was founded which for a time became a focal point for the ultra-left currents in the Third International. Together with Austrian Communists, Hungarian and Polish emigrants, who provided the inner core and the permanent membership, there were also sympathisers from the Italian ultra-left, like Bordiga and Terracini, and Dutch Communists like Pannekoek and Roland Holst.
In these circumstances it was natural that the dualism of my attitudes should not only have reached a climax but should also have crystallised out into a curious new practical and theoretical form. As a member of the inner collective of Communism I was active in helping to work out a new ‘left-wing’ political and theoretical line. It was based on the belief, very much alive at the time, that the great revolutionary wave that would soon sweep the whole world, or Europe at the very least, to socialism, had in no way been broken by the setbacks in Finland, Hungary and Munich. Events like the Kapp Putsch, the occupation of the factories in Italy, the Polish-Soviet War and even the March Action, strengthened our belief in the imminence of world revolution and the total transformation of the civilised world. Of course, in discussing this sectarianism of the early twenties we must not imagine anything like the sectarianism seen in Stalinist praxis. This aimed at protecting the given power relations against all reforms; its objectives were conservative and its methods bureaucratic. The sectarianism of the twenties had messianic, utopian aspirations and its methods were violently opposed to bureaucracy. The two trends have only the name in common and inwardly they represent two hostile extremes. (Of course, it is true that even in the Third International Zinoviev and his disciples introduced bureaucratic methods, just as it is true that Lenin’s last years, at a time when he was already burdened by ill-health, were filled with anxiety about the problem of fighting the growing, spontaneously generated bureaucratisation of the Soviet Republic on the basis of proletarian democracy. But even here we perceive the distinction between the sectarians of then and now. My essay on questions of organisation in the Hungarian Party is directed against the theory and practice of Zinoviev’s disciple, Bela Kun.)
Our magazine strove to propagate a messianic sectarianism by working out the most radical methods on every issue, and by proclaiming a total break with every institution and mode of life stemming from the bourgeois world. This would help to foster an undistorted class consciousness in the vanguard, in the Communist parties and in the Communist youth organisations. My polemical essay attacking the idea of participation in bourgeois parliaments is a good example of this tendency. Its fate – criticism at the hands of Lenin – enabled me to take my first step away from sectarianism. Lenin pointed to the vital distinction, indeed, to the paradox, that an institution may be obsolete from the standpoint of world history – as e.g. the Soviets had rendered parliaments obsolete – but that this need not preclude participation in it for tactical reasons; on the contrary. I at once saw the force of this criticism and it compelled me to revise my historical perspectives and to adjust them more subtly and less directly to the exigencies of day-to-day tactics. In this respect it was the beginning of a change in my views. Nevertheless this change took place within the framework of an essentially sectarian outlook. This became evident a year later when, uncritically, and in the spirit of sectarianism, I gave my approval to the March Action as a whole, even though I was critical of a number of tactical errors.
It is at this point that the objective internal contradictions in my political and philosophical views come into the open. On the international scene I was able to indulge all my intellectual passion for revolutionary messianism unhindered. But in Hungary, with the gradual emergence of an organised Communist movement, I found myself increasingly having to face decisions whose general and personal, long-term and immediate consequences, I could not ignore and which I had to make the basis of yet further decisions. This had already been my position in the Soviet Republic in Hungary. There the need to consider other than messianic perspectives had often forced me into realistic decisions both in the People’s Commissariat for Education and in the division where I was in charge politically. Now, however, the confrontation with the facts, the compulsion to search for what Lenin called ‘the next link in the chain’ became incomparably more urgent and intensive than ever before in my life. Precisely because the actual substance of such decisions seemed so empirical it had far-reaching consequences for my theoretical position. For this had now to be adjusted to objective situations and tendencies. If I wished to arrive at a decision that was correct in principle I could never be content just to consider the immediate state of affairs. I would have to seek out those often-concealed mediations that had produced the situation and above all I would have to strive to anticipate the factors that would probably result from them and influence future praxis. I found myself adopting an intellectual attitude dictated, by life-itself, that conflicted sharply with the idealism and utopianism of my revolutionary messianism.
My dilemma was made even more acute by the fact that opposed to me within the leadership of the Hungarian Party was the group led by Zinoviev’s disciple, Bela Kun, who subscribed to a sectarianism of a modern bureaucratic type. In theory it would have been possible to repudiate his views as those of a pseudo-leftist. In practice, however, his proposals could only be combated by an appeal to the highly prosaic realities of ordinary life that were but distantly related to the larger perspectives of the world revolution. At this point in my life, as so often, I had a stroke of luck: the opposition to Bela Kun was headed by Eugen Landler. He was notable not only for his great and above all practical intelligence but also for his understanding of theoretical problems so long as they were linked, however indirectly, with the praxis of revolution. He was a man whose most deeply rooted attitudes were determined by his intimate involvement in the life of the masses. His protest against Kun’s bureaucratic and adventurist projects convinced me at once, and when it came to an open breach I was always on his side. It is not possible to go into even the most important details of these inner party struggles here, although there are some matters of theoretical interest. As far as I was concerned the breach meant that the methodological cleavage in my thought now developed into a division between theory and practice. While I continued to support ultra-left tendencies on the great international problems of revolution, as a member of the leadership of the Hungarian Party I became the most bitter enemy of Kun’s sectarianism. This became particularly obvious early in 1921. On the Hungarian front I followed Landler in advocating an energetic anti-sectarian line while simultaneously at the international level I gave theoretical support to the March Action. With this the tension between the conflicting tendencies reached a climax. As the divisions in the Hungarian Party became more acute, as the movement of the radical workers in Hungary began to grow, my ideas were increasingly influenced by the theoretical tendencies brought into being by these events. However, they did not yet gain the upper hand at this stage despite the fact that Lenin’s criticism had undermined my analysis of the March Action.
History and Class Consciousness was born in the midst of the crises of this transitional period. It was written in 1922. It consisted in part of earlier texts in a revised form; in addition to those already mentioned there was the essay on Class Consciousness of 1920. The two essays on Rosa Luxemburg and Legality and Illegality were included in the new collection without significant alterations. Only two studies, the most important ones, were wholly new: Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat and Towards a Methodology of the Problem of Organisation. (The latter was based on Organisational Problems of the Revolutionary Movement, an essay that had appeared in the magazine The International in 1921 immediately after the March Action.) History and Class Consciousness is, then, the final synthesis of the period of my development that began with the last years of the war. However, it is also in part the start of a transitional stage leading to a greater clarity, even though these tendencies could not mature properly.
This unresolved conflict between opposed intellectual trends which cannot always be easily labelled victorious or defeated makes it difficult even now to give a coherent critique of the book. However, the attempt must be made to isolate at least the dominant motifs. The book’s most striking feature is that, contrary to the subjective intentions of its author, objectively it falls in with a tendency in the history of Marxism that has taken many different forms. All of them have one thing in common, whether they like it or not and irrespective of their philosophical origins or their political effects: they strike at the very roots of Marxian ontology. I refer to the tendency to view Marxism exclusively as a theory of society, as social philosophy, and hence to ignore or repudiate it as a theory of nature. Even before World War I Marxists as far apart as Max Adler and Lunacharsky defended views of this kind. In our day we find them emerging once more, above all in French Existentialism and its intellectual ambience – probably due in part to the influence of History and Class Consciousness. My book takes up a very definite stand on this issue. I argue in a number of places that nature is a societal category and the whole drift of the book tends to show that only a knowledge of society and the men who live in it is of relevance to philosophy. The very names of the representatives of this tendency indicate that it is not a clearly definable trend. I myself knew of Lunacharsky only by name and I always rejected Max Adler as a Kantian and a Social Democrat. Despite this a close examination reveals that they have a number of features in common. On the one hand, it is demonstrable that it is the materialist view of nature that brings about the really radical separation of the bourgeois and socialist outlooks. The failure to grasp this blurs philosophical debate and e.g. prevents the clear elaboration of the Marxist concept of praxis. On the other hand, this apparent methodological upgrading of societal categories distorts their true epistemological functions. Their specific Marxist quality is weakened, and their real advance on bourgeois thought is often retracted unconsciously.
I must confine myself here to a critique of History and Class Consciousness but this is not to imply that this deviation from Marxism was less pronounced in the case of other writers with a similar outlook. In my book this deviation has immediate consequences for the view of economics I give there and fundamental confusions result, as in the nature of the case economics must be crucial. It is true that the attempt is made to explain all ideological phenomena by reference to their basis in economics but, despite this, the purview of economics is narrowed down because its basic Marxist category, labour as the mediator of the metabolic interaction between society and nature, is missing. Given my basic approach, such a consequence is quite natural. It means that the most important real pillars of the Marxist view of the world disappear and the attempt to deduce the ultimate revolutionary implications of Marxism in as radical a fashion as possible is deprived of a genuinely economic foundation. It is self-evident that this means the disappearance of the ontological objectivity of nature upon which this process of change is based. But it also means the disappearance of the interaction between labour as seen from a genuinely materialist standpoint and the evolution of the men who labour. Marx’s great insight that “even production for the sake of production means nothing more than the development of the productive energies of man, and hence the development of the wealth of human nature as an end in itself” lies outside the terrain which History and Class Consciousness is able to explore. Capitalist exploitation thus loses its objective revolutionary aspect and there is a failure to grasp the fact that “although this evolution of the species Man is accomplished at first at the expense of the majority of individual human beings and of certain human classes, it finally overcomes this antagonism and coincides with the evolution of the particular individual. Thus the higher development of individuality is only purchased by a historical process in which individuals are sacrificed. In consequence, my account of the contradictions of capitalism as well as of the revolutionisation of the proletariat is unintentionally coloured by an overriding subjectivism.
This has a narrowing and distorting effect on the book’s central concept of praxis. With regard to this problem, too, my intention was to base myself on Marx and to free his concepts from every subsequent bourgeois distortion and to adapt them to the requirements of the great revolutionary upsurge of the present. (Above all I was absolutely convinced of one thing: that the purely contemplative nature of bourgeois thought had to be radically overcome. As a result the conception of revolutionary praxis in this book takes on extravagant overtones that are more in keeping with the current messianic utopianism of the Communist left than with authentic Marxist doctrine. Comprehensibly enough in the context of the period, I attacked the bourgeois and opportunistic currents in the workers’ movement that glorified a conception of knowledge which was ostensibly objective but was in fact isolated from any sort of praxis; with considerable justice I directed my polemics against the over-extension and over-valuation of contemplation. Marx’s critique of Feuerbach only reinforced my convictions. What I failed to realise, however, was that in the absence of a basis in real praxis, in labour as its original form and model, the over-extension of the concept of praxis would lead to its opposite: a relapse into idealistic contemplation. My intention, then, was to chart the correct and authentic class consciousness of the proletariat, distinguishing it from ‘public opinion surveys’ (a term not yet in currency) and to confer upon it an indisputably practical objectivity. I was unable, however, to progress beyond the notion of an ‘imputed’ class consciousness. By this I meant the same thing as Lenin in What is to be done? when he maintained that socialist class consciousness would differ from the spontaneously emerging trade-union consciousness in that it would be implanted in the workers ‘from outside’, i.e. “from outside the economic struggle and the sphere of the relations between workers and employers”. Hence, what I had intended subjectively, and what Lenin had arrived at as the result of an authentic Marxist analysis of a practical movement, was transformed in my account into a purely intellectual result and thus into something contemplative. In my presentation it would indeed be a miracle if this ‘imputed’, consciousness could turn into revolutionary praxis.
This transformation into its opposite of what was in itself a correct intention follows from the abstract and idealistic conception of praxis already referred to. This is seen clearly in the – once again not wholly misguided – polemic against Engels who had looked to experiment and industry for the typical cases in which praxis proves to be a criterion of theory. I have since come to realise that Engels’ thesis is theoretically incomplete in that it overlooks the fact that the terrain of praxis while remaining unchanged in its basic structure has become much more extensive, more complex and more mediated than in the case of work. For this reason the mere act of producing an object may indeed become the foundation of the immediately correct realisation of a theoretical assumption. To this extent it can serve as a criterion of its truth or falsity. However, the task that Engels imposes here on immediate praxis of putting an end to the Kantian theory of the ‘intangible thing-in-itself’ is far from being solved. For work itself can easily remain a matter of pure manipulation, spontaneously or consciously by-passing the solution to the problem of the thing-in-itself and ignoring it either wholly or in part. History supplies us with instances where the correct action has been taken on the basis of false theories and in Engels’ sense these cases imply a failure to understand the thing-in-itself. Indeed the Kantian theory itself in no way denies that experiments of this kind are objective and provide valuable knowledge. He only relegates them to the realm of mere appearances in which things-in-themselves remain unknown. And the neo-positivism of our own day aims at removing every question about reality (the thing-in-itself) from the purview of science, it rejects every question about the thing-in-itself as ‘unscientific’ and at the same time it acknowledges the validity of all the conclusions of technology and science. If praxis is to fulfil the function Engels rightly assigned to it, it must go beyond this immediacy while remaining praxis and developing into a comprehensive praxis.
My objections to Engels’ solution were not without foundation. All the more mistaken was my chain of argument. It was quite wrong to maintain that ‘experiment is pure contemplation’. My own account refutes this. For the creation of a situation in which the natural forces under investigation can function ‘purely’, i.e. without outside interference or subjective error, is quite comparable to the case of work in that it too implies the creation of a teleological system, admittedly of a special kind. In its essence it is therefore pure praxis. It was no less a mistake to deny that industry is praxis and to see in it “in a historical and, dialectical sense only the object and not the subject of the ‘natural’ laws of society”. The half-truth contained in this sentence – and it is no more than a half-truth at best – applies only to the economic totality of capitalist production. But it is by no means contradicted by the fact that every single act in industrial production not only represents a synthesis of teleological acts of work but is also itself a teleological, i.e. practical, act in this very synthesis. It is in line with such philosophical misconceptions that History and Class Consciousness began its analysis of economic phenomena not with a consideration of work but only of the complicated structures of a developed commodity economy. This means that all prospects of advancing to decisive questions like the relation of theory to practice and subject to object are frustrated from the outset.
In these and similarly problematical premises we see the result of a failure to subject the Hegelian heritage to a thoroughgoing materialist reinterpretation and hence to transcend and preserve it. I would once again cite a central problem of principle. It is undoubtedly one of the great achievements of History and Class Consciousness to have reinstated the category of totality in the central position it had occupied throughout Marx’s works and from which it had been ousted by the ‘scientism’ of the social- democratic opportunists. I did not know at the time that Lenin was moving in a similar direction. (The philosophical fragments were published nine years after the appearance of History and Class Consciousness.) But whereas Lenin really brought about a renewal of the Marxian method my efforts resulted in a Hegelian distortion, in which I put the totality in the centre of the system, overriding the priority of economics! “It is not the primacy of economic motives in historical explanation that constitutes the decisive difference between Marxism and bourgeois science, but the point of view of totality.’’ This methodological paradox was intensified further by the fact that the totality was seen as the conceptual embodiment of the revolutionary principle in science. “The primacy of the category of totality is the bearer of the revolutionary principle in science.”
There is no doubt that such paradoxes of method played a not unimportant and in many ways very progressive role in the impact of History and Class Consciousness on later thought. For the revival of Hegel’s dialectics struck a hard blow at the revisionist tradition. Already Bernstein had wished to dominate everything reminiscent of Hegel’s dialectics in the name of ‘science’. And nothing was further from the mind of his philosophical opponents, and above all Kautsky, than the wish to undertake the defence of this tradition. For anyone wishing to return to the revolutionary traditions of Marxism the revival of the Hegelian traditions was obligatory. History and Class Consciousness represents what was perhaps the most radical attempt to restore the revolutionary nature of Marx’s theories by renovating and extending Hegel’s dialectics and method. The task was made even more important by the fact that bourgeois philosophy at the time showed signs of a growing interest in Hegel. Of course they never succeeded in making Hegel’s breach with Kant the foundation of their analysis and, on the other hand, they were influenced by Dilthey’s attempts to construct theoretical bridges between Hegelian dialectics and modern irrationalism. A little while after the appearance of History and Class Consciousness Kroner described Hegel as the greatest irrationalist of all time and in Lowith’s later studies Marx and Kierkegaard were to emerge as parallel phenomena out of the dissolution of Hegelianism. It is by contrast with all these developments that we can best see the relevance of History and Class Consciousness. Another fact contributing to its importance to the ideology of the radical workers’ movement was that whereas Plekhanov and others had vastly overestimated Feuerbach’s role as an intermediary between Hegel and Marx, this was relegated to the background here. Anticipating the publication of Lenin’s later philosophical studies by some years, it was nevertheless only somewhat later, in the essay on Moses Hess, that I explicitly argued that Marx followed directly from Hegel. However, this position is contained implicitly in many of the discussions in History and Class Consciousness.
In a necessarily brief summary it is not possible to undertake a concrete criticism of all the issues raised by the book, and to show how far the interpretation of Hegel it contained was a source of confusion and how far it pointed towards the future. The contemporary reader who is qualified to criticise will certainly find evidence of both tendencies. To assess the impact of the book at that time, and also its relevance today, we must consider one problem that surpasses in its importance all questions of detail. This is the question of alienation, which, for the first time since Marx, is treated as central to the revolutionary critique of capitalism and which has its theoretical and methodological roots in the Hegelian dialectic. Of course the problem was in the air at the time. Some years later, following the publication of Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927), it moved into the centre of philosophical debate. Even today it has not lost this position, largely because of the influence of Sartre, his followers and his opponents. The philosophical problem raised above all by Lucien Goldmann when he interpreted Heidegger’s work in part as a polemical reply to mine – which however was not mentioned explicitly – can be left on one side here. The statement that the problem was in the air is perfectly adequate, particularly as it is not possible to discuss the reasons for this here and to lay bare the mixture of Marxist and Existentialist ideas that were so influential after World War II, especially in France. The question of who was first and who influenced whom is not particularly interesting here. What is important is that the alienation of man is a crucial problem of the age in which we live and is recognised as such by both bourgeois and proletarian thinkers, by commentators on both right and left. Hence History and Class Consciousness had a profound impact in youthful intellectual circles; I know of a whole host of good Communists who were won over to the movement by this very fact. Without a doubt the fact that this Marxist and Hegelian question was taken up by a Communist was one reason why the impact of the book went far beyond the limits of the party.
As to the way in which the problem was actually dealt with, it is not hard to see today that it was treated in purely Hegelian terms. In particular its ultimate philosophical foundation is the identical subject-object that realises itself in the historical process. Of course, in Hegel it arises in a purely logical and philosophical form when the highest stage of absolute spirit is attained in philosophy by abolishing alienation and by the return of self-consciousness to itself, thus realising the identical subject-object. In History and Class Consciousness, however, this process is socio-historical and it culminates when the proletariat reaches this stage in its class consciousness, thus becoming the identical subject-object of history. This does indeed appear to ‘stand Hegel on his feet’; it appears as if the logico-metaphysical construction of the Phenomenology of Mind had found its authentic realisation in the existence and the consciousness of the proletariat. And this appears in turn to provide a philosophical foundation for the proletariat’s efforts to form a classless society through revolution and to conclude the ‘prehistory’ of mankind. But is the identical subject-object here anything more in truth than a purely metaphysical construct ? Can a genuinely identical subject-object be created by self-knowledge, however adequate, and however truly based on an adequate knowledge of society, i.e. however perfect that self-knowledge is? We need only formulate the question precisely to see that it must be answered in the negative. For even when the content of knowledge is referred back to the knowing subject, this does not mean that the act of cognition is thereby freed of its alienated nature. In the Phenomenology of Mind, Hegel rightly dismisses the notion of a mystical and irrationalistic realisation of the identical subject-object, of Schelling’s ‘intellectual intuition’, calling instead for a philosophical and rational solution to the problem. His healthy sense of reality induced him to leave the matter at this juncture; his very general system does indeed culminate in the vision of such a realisation but he never shows in concrete terms how it might be achieved. Thus the proletariat seen as the identical subject-object of the real history of mankind is no materialist consummation that overcomes the constructions of idealism. It is rather an attempt to out-Hegel Hegel, it is an edifice boldly erected above every possible reality and thus attempts objectively to surpass the Master himself.
Hegel’s reluctance to commit himself on this point is the product of the wrong-headedness of his basic concept. For it is in Hegel that we first encounter alienation as the fundamental problem of the place of man in the world and vis-à-vis the world. However, in the term alienation he includes every type of objectification Thus ‘alienation’ when taken to its logical conclusion is identical with objectification. Therefore, when the identical subject-object transcends alienation it must also transcend objectification at the same time. But as, according to Hegel, the object, the thing exists only as an alienation from self-consciousness, to take it back into the subject would mean the end of objective reality and thus of any reality at all. History and Class Consciousness follows Hegel in that it too equates alienation with objectification (to use the term employed by Marx in the Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts). This fundamental and crude error has certainly contributed greatly to the success enjoyed by History and Class Consciousness. The unmasking of alienation by philosophy was in the air, as we have remarked, and it soon became a central problem in the type of cultural criticism that undertook to scrutinise the condition of man in contemporary capitalism. In the philosophical, cultural criticism of the bourgeoisie (and we need look no further than Heidegger), it was natural to sublimate a critique of society into a purely philosophical problem, i.e. to convert an essentially social alienation into an eternal ‘condition humaine’, to use a term not coined until somewhat later. It is evident that History and Class Consciousness met such attitudes half-way, even though its intentions had been different and indeed opposed to them. For when I identified alienation with objectification I meant this as a societal category – socialism would after all abolish alienation – but its irreducible presence in class society and above all its basis in philosophy brought it into the vicinity of the ‘condition humaine’.
This follows from the frequently stressed false identification of opposed fundamental categories. For objectification is indeed a phenomenon that cannot be eliminated from human life in society. If we bear in mind that every externalisation of an object in practice (and hence, too, in work) is an objectification that every human expression including speech objectifies human thoughts and feelings, then it is clear that we are dealing with a universal mode of commerce between men. And in so far as this is the case, objectification is a natural phenomenon; the true is as much an objectification as the false, liberation as much as enslavement. Only when the objectified forms in society acquire functions that bring the essence of man into conflict with his existence, only when man’s nature is subjugated, deformed and crippled can we speak of an objective societal condition of alienation and, as an inexorable consequence, of all the subjective marks of an internal alienation. This duality was not acknowledged in History and Class Consciousness. And this is why it is so wide of the mark in its basic view of the history of philosophy. (We note in passing that the phenomenon of reification is closely related to that of alienation but is neither socially nor conceptually identical with it; here the two words were used synonymously.) This critique of the basic concepts cannot hope to be comprehensive. But even in an account as brief as this mention must be made of my rejection of the view that knowledge is reflection. This had two sources. The first was my deep abhorrence of the mechanistic fatalism which was the normal concomitant of reflection theory in mechanistic materialism. Against this my messianic utopianism, the predominance of praxis in my thought rebelled in passionate protest – a protest that, once again, was not wholly misguided. In the second place I recognised the way in which praxis had its origins and its roots in work. The most primitive kind of work, such as the quarrying of stones by primeval man, implies a correct reflection of the reality he is concerned with. For no purposive activity can be carried out in the absence of an image, however crude, of the practical reality involved. Practice can only be a fulfilment and a criterion of theory when it is based on what is held to be a correct reflection of reality. It would be unrewarding at this point to detail the arguments that justify rejecting the analogy with photography which is so prevalent in the current debate on reflection theories.
It is, I believe, no contradiction that I should have spoken here so exclusively of the negative aspects of History and Class Consciousness while asserting that nevertheless the book was not without importance in its day. The very fact that all the errors listed here have their source not so much in the idiosyncrasies of the author as in the prevalent, if often mistaken, tendencies of the age gives the book a certain claim to be regarded as representative. A momentous, world-historical change was struggling to find a theoretical expression. Even if a theory was unable to do justice to the objective nature of the great crisis, it might yet formulate a typical view and thus achieve a certain historical validity. This was the case, as I believe today, with History and Class Consciousness.
However, it is by no means my intention to pretend that all the ideas contained in the book are mistaken without exception. The introductory comments in the first essay, for example, give a definition of orthodoxy in Marxism which I now think not only objectively correct but also capable of exerting a considerable influence even today when we are on the eve of a Marxist renaissance. I refer to this passage : “Let us assume that recent research had proved once and for all that every one of Marx’s individual theses was false. Even if this were to be proved every serious ‘orthodox’ Marxist would still be able to accept all such modern conclusions without reservation and hence dismiss every single one of Marx’s theses – without being compelled for a single minute to renounce his orthodoxy. Orthodox Marxism, therefore, does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx’s investigations. It is not the ‘belief’ in this or that thesis, not the exegesis of a ‘sacred’ book. On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method. It is the scientific conviction that dialectical Marxism is the road to truth and that its methods can be developed, expanded and deepened only along the lines laid down by its founders. It is the conviction, moreover, that all attempts to surpass or ‘improve’ it have led and must lead to oversimplification, triviality and eclecticism.”
And without feeling myself to be excessively immodest, I believe that a number of equally true ideas can be found in the book. I need only refer to the fact that I included the early works of Marx in the overall picture of his world-view. I did this at a time when most Marxists were unwilling to see in them more than historical documents that were important only for his personal development. Moreover, History and Class Consciousness cannot be blamed if, decades later, the relationship was reversed so that the early works were seen as the products of the true Marxist philosophy, while the later works were neglected. Rightly or wrongly, I had always treated Marx’s works as having an essential unity.
Nor do I wish to deny that in a number of places the attempt is made to depict the real nature and the movement of the dialectical categories. This points forward to a genuine Marxist ontology of existence in society. For example, the category of mediation is represented in this way: “Thus the category of mediation is a lever with which to overcome the mere immediacy of the empirical world and as such it is not anything (subjective) that has been foisted on to the objects from outside; it is no value judgement or ‘Ought’ as opposed to their ‘Is’. It is rather the manifestation of their authentic objective structure.” And closely related to this is the discussion of the connection between genesis and history: “That genesis and history should coincide or, more exactly, that they should be different aspects of the same process, can only happen if two conditions are fulfilled. On the one hand, all the categories in which human existence is constructed must appear as the determinants of that existence itself (and not merely of the description of that existence). On the other hand their sequence, their coherence and their interconnections must appear as aspects of the historical process itself, as the structural physiognomy of the present. Thus the sequence and the inner coherence of the categories is neither purely logical, nor is it merely organised in conformity with the historical facts as they happen to be given. This line of reasoning concludes, as is only logical, with a quotation from Marx’s famous study of method, made in the fifties. Passages like this one which anticipate a genuine materialistic and dialectical reinterpretation of Marx are not infrequent.
If I have concentrated on my errors, there have been mainly practical reasons for it. It is a fact that History and Class Consciousness had a powerful effect on many readers and continues to do so even today. If it is the true arguments that achieve this impact, then all is well and the author’s reaction is wholly uninteresting and irrelevant. Unfortunately I know it to be the case that, owing to the way society has developed and to the political theories this development has produced, it is precisely those parts of the book that I regard as theoretically false that have been most influential. For this reason I see it as my duty on the occasion of a reprint after more than 40 years to pronounce upon the book’s negative tendencies and to warn my readers against errors that were hard to avoid then, perhaps, but which have long ceased to be so.
I have already said that History and Class Consciousness was in quite a definite sense the summation and conclusion of a period of development beginning in 1918-19. The years that followed showed this even more clearly. Above all my messianic utopianism lost (and was even seen to lose) its real grip on me. Lenin died in 1924. The party struggles that followed his death were concentrated increasingly on the debate about whether socialism could survive in one country. That it was possible in theory Lenin had affirmed long before. But the seemingly near prospect of world revolution made it appear particularly theoretical and abstract. The fact that it was now taken seriously proved that a world revolution could not be held to be imminent in these years. (Only with the slump in 1929 did it re-emerge from time to time as a possibility.) Moreover, after 1924 the Third International correctly defined the position of the capitalist world as one of ‘relative stability’. These facts meant that I had to re-think my theoretical position. In the debates of the Russian Party I agreed with Stalin about the necessity for socialism in one country and this shows very clearly the start of a new epoch in my thought.
More immediately, this was brought about mainly by my experience in working for the Hungarian Party. The correct policy of the Landler faction began to bear fruit. The Party, working in conditions of strict illegality, steadily increased its influence on the left wing of the Social Democrats so that in 1924-25 it came to a split and the founding of a Workers’ Party that would be radical and yet legal. This party was led illegally by Communists and for its strategic objective it had chosen the task of establishing democracy in Hungary. While the efforts of this party culminated in the call for a republic the Communist Party continued to pursue the aim of a dictatorship of the proletariat. At the time I was in agreement with this tactical policy but was increasingly tormented by a whole complex of unresolved problems concerning the theoretical justification of such a position.
These considerations began to undermine the bases of the ideas I had formed during the period 1917 – 24. A contributory factor was that the very obvious slowing-down of the tempo of the world-revolutionary ferment inevitably led to co-operation among the various left-wing movements so as to combat the increasingly strong growth of a reactionary movement. In the Hungary of Horthy this was an obvious necessity for any legal and left-wing radical workers’ party. But even in the international movement there were similar tendencies. In 1922 the march on Rome had taken place and in Germany, too, the next few years brought a growth in National Socialism, an increasing concentration of all the forces of reaction. This put the problems of a United Front and a Popular Front on the agenda and these had to be discussed on the plane of theory as well as strategy and tactics. Moreover, few initiatives could be expected from the Third International which was being influenced more and more strongly by Stalinist tactics. Tactically it swung back and forth between right and left. Stalin himself intervened in the midst of this uncertainty with disastrous consequences when, around 1928, he described the Social Democrats as the ‘twin brothers’ of the Fascists. This put an end to all prospects of a United Front on the left. Although I was on Stalin’s side on the central issue of Russia, I was deeply repelled by his attitude here. However, it did nothing to retard my gradual disenchantment with the ultra-left tendencies of my early revolutionary years as most of the left-wing groupings in the European parties were Trotskyite – a position which I always rejected. Of course, if I was against Ruth Fischer and Maslow in their attitude to German problems – and it was these with which I was always most concerned – this does not mean that I was in sympathy with Brandler and Thalheimer. To clear my own mind and to achieve a political and theoretical self-understanding I was engaged at the time on a search for a ‘genuine’ left-wing programme that would provide a third alternative to the opposing factions in Germany. But the idea of such a theoretical and political solution to the contradictions in, the period of transition was doomed to remain a dream. I never succeeded in solving it to my own satisfaction and so I did not publish any theoretical or political contribution on the international level during this period.
The situation was different in the Hungarian movement. Landler died in 1928 and in 1929 the party prepared for its Second Congress. I was given the task of drafting the political theses for the Congress. This brought me face to face with my old problem in the Hungarian question: can a party opt simultaneously for two different strategic objectives (legally for a republic, illegally for a soviet republic) ? Or looked at from another angle: can the party’s attitude towards the form of the state be a matter of purely tactical expediency (i.e. with the illegal Communist movement as the genuine objective while the legal party is no more than a tactical manoeuvre) ? A thorough analysis of the social and economic situation in Hungary convinced me more and more that Landler with his strategic policy in favour of a republic had instinctively touched on the central issue of a correct revolutionary plan for Hungary: even if the Horthy regime had undergone such a profound crisis as to create the objective conditions for a thorough-going revolution, Hungary would still be unable to make the transition directly to a soviet republic. Therefore, the legal policy of working for a republic had to be concretised to mean what Lenin meant in 1905 by a democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants. It is hard for most people to imagine how paradoxical this sounded then. Although the Sixth Congress of the Third International did mention this as a possibility, it was generally thought to be historically impossible to take such a retrograde step, as Hungary had already been a soviet republic in 1919.
This is not the place to discuss all these different views. Particularly as the text of the theses can scarcely be held to have any great value as a theoretical document today, even though for me personally they changed the whole direction of my later development. But my analysis was inadequate both on the level of principle and of concrete detail. This was due in part to the fact that in order to make the chief matters of substance more acceptable I had treated the issues too generally and did not give sufficient force to particulars. Even so they caused a great scandal in the Hungarian Party. The Kun group saw the theses as the purest opportunism; support for me from my own party was lukewarm. When I heard from a reliable source that Bela Kun was planning to expel me from the Party as a ‘Liquidator’, I gave up the struggle, as I was well aware of Kun’s prestige in the International, and I published a ‘Self-criticism’. I was indeed firmly convinced that I was in the right but I knew also – e.g. from the fate that had befallen Karl Korsch – that to be expelled from the Party meant that it would no longer be possible to participate actively in the struggle against Fascism. I wrote my self-criticism as an ‘entry ticket’ to such activity as I neither could nor wished to continue to work in the Hungarian movement in the circumstances.
How little this self-criticism was to be taken seriously can be gauged from the fact that the basic change in my outlook underlying the Blum Theses (which failed, however, to express it in an even remotely satisfactory fashion) determined from now on all my theoretical and practical activities. Needless to say, this is not the place to give even a brief account of these. As evidence that my claim is objectively verifiable and not merely the product of a wish-fulfilment, I may cite the comments made (in 1950) by Joszef Revai, the chief ideologist of the Party, with reference to the Blum Theses. He regards the literary views I held at the time as flowing directly from the Blum Theses. “Everyone familiar with the history of the Hungarian Communist Party knows that the literary views held by Comrade Lukacs between 1945 and 1949 belong together with political views that he had formulated much earlier, in the context of political trends in Hungary and of the strategy of the Communist Party at the end of the twenties.”
This question has another, and for me a more important aspect, one which gives the change recorded here a much sharper definition. As the reader of these essays knows, my decision to take an active part in the Communist movement was influenced profoundly by ethical considerations. When I took this decision I did not suspect that I would be a politician for the next decade. However, circumstances would have it so. When, in February 1919, the Central Committee was arrested, I once again thought it my duty to accept the post offered to me in the semi-illegal committee set up to replace it. There then followed in inevitable sequence posts in the People’s Commissariat for Education in the Soviet Republic and political People’s Commissariat in the Red Army, illegal activity in Budapest, internal party conflict in Vienna and so on. Only then was I placed before a real alternative. My internal, private self-criticism came to the conclusion that if I was so clearly in the right, as I believed, and could still not avoid such a sensational defeat, then there must be grave defects in my practical political abilities. Therefore, I felt able to withdraw from my political career with a good conscience and concentrate once more on theoretical matters. I have never regretted this decision. (Nor is there any inconsistency in the fact that in 1956 I had once again to take on a ministerial post. I declared before accepting it that it was only for the interim, the period of acute crisis, and that as soon as the situation became more settled I would immediately resign.)
In pursuing the analysis of my theoretical activities in the narrow sense I have by-passed half a decade and can only now return to a more detailed discussion of the essays subsequent to History and Class Consciousness. This divergence from the correct chronological sequence is justified by the fact that, without my suspecting it in the least, the theoretical content of the Blum Theses formed the secret terminus ad quem of my development. The years of my apprenticeship in Marxism could only be held to have reached a conclusion when I really began to overcome the contradictory dualism that had characterised my thought since the last years of the war by confronting a particular question of importance involving the most diverse problems. I can now outline the course of this development up to the Blum Theses by pointing to my theoretical works dating from that period. I think that by establishing beforehand the terminal point of that development it becomes easier to give such an account. This is particularly obvious when it is remembered that I devoted all my energy at this time to the practical problems of the Hungarian movement so that my contributions to theory consisted chiefly of occasional pieces.
The first and longest of these, an attempt to provide an intellectual portrait of Lenin, is literally an occasional piece. Immediately after Lenin’s death my publisher asked me for a brief monograph about him; I complied and the little essay was completed within a few weeks. It represents an advance on History and Class Consciousness inasmuch as the need to concentrate on my great model helped me to put the concept of praxis into a clearer, more authentic, more natural and dialectical relationship with theory. Needless to say, my view of the world revolution was that of the twenties. However, partly because of my experience of the brief intervening period and partly because of the need to concentrate on Lenin’s intellectual personality the most obviously sectarian features of History and Class Consciousness began to fade and were succeeded by others closer to reality. In a Postscript that I recently wrote for a separate reissue of this little study I tried to show in somewhat greater detail than in the original what I still believe to be the healthy and relevant features of its basic argument. Above all I tried to see in Lenin neither a man who simply and straightforwardly followed in the footsteps of Marx and Engels, nor a pragmatic ‘Realpolitiker’ of genius. My aim was to clarify the authentic quality of his mind. Briefly this image of Lenin can be formulated as follows: his strength in theory is derived from the fact that however abstract a concept may be, he always considers its implications for human praxis. Likewise in the case of every action which, as always with him, is based on the concrete analysis of the relevant situation, he always makes sure that his analysis can be connected organically and dialectically with the principles of Marxism. Thus he is neither a theoretician nor a practitioner in the strict sense of the word. He is a profound philosopher of praxis, a man who passionately transforms theory. into practice, a man whose sharp attention is always focused on the nodal points where theory becomes practice, practice becomes theory. The fact that my old study still bears the marks of the twenties produces false emphases in my intellectual portrait of Lenin, especially as his critique of the present probed much deeper in his last period than that of his biographer. However, the main features are essentially correct as Lenin’s theoretical and practical life’s work is objectively inseparable from the preparations of 1917 and their necessary consequences. Illumined by the spotlight of the twenties, this attempt to do justice to the specific nature of such a great man makes him appear slightly unfamiliar but not wholly unrecognisable.
Everything else that I wrote in the years that followed is not only outwardly adventitious (it consists largely of book reviews), but also inwardly. I was spontaneously searching for a new orientation and I tried to clarify my future direction by demarcating it off from the views of others. As far as substance is concerned the review of Bukharin is perhaps the most weighty of these works. (I would observe in passing for the benefit of the modern reader that in 1925 Bukharin was, after Stalin, the most important figure in the leadership of the Russian Party; the breach between them did not take place for another three years.) The most positive feature of this review is the way my views on economics become concretised. This can be seen above all in my polemic against an idea that had a wide currency among both vulgar-materialist Communists and bourgeois positivists. This was the notion that technology was the principle that objectively governed progress in the development of the forces of production: This evidently leads to historical fatalism, to the elimination of man and of social activity; it leads to the ideal that technology functions like a societal ‘natural force’ obedient to ‘natural laws’. My criticism not only moved on a more concrete historical level than had been the case for most of History and Class Consciousness, but also I made less use of voluntaristic ideological counter-weights to oppose to this mechanistic fatalism. I tried to demonstrate that economic forces determined the course of society and hence of technology too. The same applies to my review of Wittfogel’s book. Both analyses suffer from the same theoretical defect in that they both treat mechanistic vulgar-materialism and positivism as a single undifferentiated trend, and indeed the latter is for the most part assimilated into the former.
Of greater importance are the much more detailed discussions of the new editions of Lassalles’s letters and the works of Moses Hess. Both reviews are dominated by the tendency to ground social criticism and the evolution of society more concretely in economics than I had ever been able to do in History and Class Consciousness. At the same time I tried to make use of the critique of idealism, of the continuation of the Hegelian dialectic for enlarging our knowledge of the insights thus acquired. That is to say, I took up again the criticism that the young Marx had levelled in The Holy Family at the idealist thinkers who had allegedly refuted Hegel. Marx’s criticism was that such thinkers believed subjectively that they were making an advance on Hegel, while objectively they simply represented a revival of Fichte’s subjective idealism. Thus it is characteristic of the conservative aspects of Hegel’s thought that his history of philosophy does not go beyond proving the necessity of the present. Subjectively, therefore, there was certainly something revolutionary about the impulses that lay behind Fichte’s philosophy of history with its definition of the present as the ‘age of total degradation’ poised between the past and a future of which it claimed to have philosophical knowledge. Already in the review of Lassalle it is shown that this radicalism is purely imaginary and that as far as knowledge of the real movement of history is concerned Hegel’s philosophy moves on an objectively higher plane than Fichte’s. This is because the dynamics of Hegel’s system of the social and historical mediating factors that produce the present is more real and less of an abstract intellectual construct than Fichte’s manner of pointing towards the future. Lassalle’s sympathy for such tendencies is anchored in the pure idealism of his overall view of the world; it refuses to concern itself with the worldliness that results from a view of history based on economics. In order to give full force to the distance separating Marx and Lassalle, I quoted in the review a statement made by Lassalle in the course of a conversation with Marx: “If you do not believe in the immortality of the categories, then you must believe in God.” This sharp delineation of the retrograde features of Lassalle’s thought was at the same time part of a theoretical polemic against currents in Social Democracy. For in contrast to the criticism Marx levelled at Lassalle, there was a tendency among the Social Democrats to make of Lassalle a co-founder of the socialist view of the world, on a par with Marx. I did not refer to them explicitly but I attacked the tendency as a bourgeois deviation. This helped to bring me closer to the real Marx on a number of issues than had been possible in History and Class Consciousness.
The discussion of Moses Hess had no such immediate political relevance. But having once taken up the ideas of the early Marx I felt a strong need to define my position against that of his contemporaries, the left wing that emerged from the ruins of Hegelian philosophy and the True Socialists who were often closely associated with it. This also helped me to bring the philosophical definition of economic problems more forcefully into the foreground. My uncritical attitude towards Hegel had still not been overcome; my criticism of Hess, like History and Class Consciousness, is based on the supposed equation of objectification and alienation. The advance on my earlier position assumes a somewhat paradoxical form. On the one hand, I make use of those tendencies in Hegel which emphasise the point that economic categories are societal realities as a stick with which to beat Lassalle and the radical Young Hegelians. On the other hand, I launch a sharp attack on Feuerbach for his undialectical critique of Hegel. This last point leads to the position already affirmed: that Marx takes up the thread where Hegel left off; while the first leads to the attempt to define the relationship between economics and dialectics more closely. To take one example relating to the Phenomenology, emphasis is placed on Hegel’s worldliness in his economic and social dialectics as opposed to the transcendentalism of every type of subjective idealism. In the same way alienation is regarded neither as “a mental construct nor as a ‘reprehensible’ reality” but “as the immediately given form in which the present exists on the way to overcoming itself in the historical process”. This forms a link with an objective line of development stemming from History and Class Consciousness concerning mediation and immediacy in the evolution of society. The most important aspect of such ideas is that they culminate in the demand for a new kind of critique which is already searching explicitly for a direct link-up with Marx’s Critique of Political Economy. Once I had gained a definite and fundamental insight into what was wrong with my whole approach in History and Class Consciousness this search became a plan to investigate the philosophical connections between economics and dialectics. My first attempt to put this plan into practice came early in the thirties, in Moscow and Berlin, with the first draft of my book on the young Hegel (which was not completed until autumn 1937). Only now, thirty years later, am I attempting to discover a real solution to this whole problem in the ontology of social existence, on which I am currently engaged.
I am not in a position to document the extent to which these tendencies gained ground in the three years that separate the Hess essay from the Blum Theses. I just think it extremely unlikely that my practical work for the party, with its constant demands, for concrete economic analysis, should have had no effect on my theoretical views on economics. At any rate, the great change in my views that is embodied in the Blum Theses took place in 1929 and it was with these new attitudes that I took up a research post at the Marx-Engels Institute at Moscow in 1930. Here I had two unexpected strokes of good luck: the text of the Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts had just been completely deciphered and I was able to read it. At the same time I made the acquaintance of Mikhail Lifschitz, and this proved to be the beginning of a life-long friendship. In the process of reading the Marx manuscript all the idealist prejudices of History and Class Consciousness were swept to one side. It is undoubtedly true that I could have found ideas similar to those which now had such an overwhelming effect on me in the works of Marx that I had read previously. But the fact is that this did not happen, evidently because I read Marx in the light of my own Hegelian interpretation. Hence only a completely new text could have such a shock effect. (Of course, an additional factor was that I had already undermined the sociopolitical foundations of that idealism in the Blum Theses.) However that may be, I can still remember even today the overwhelming effect produced in me by Marx’s statement that objectivity was the primary material attribute of all things and relations. This links up with the idea already mentioned the objectification is a natural means by which man masters the world and as such it can be either a positive or a negative fact. By contrast, alienation is a special variant of that activity that becomes operative in definite social conditions. This completely shattered the theoretical foundations of what had been the particular achievement of History and Class Consciousness. The book became wholly alien to me just as my earlier writings had become by 1918 – 19. It suddenly became clear to me that if I wished to give body to these new theoretical insights I would have to start again from scratch.
It was my intention at the time to publish a statement of my new position. My attempt to do so proved a failure (the manuscript has since been lost). I was not much concerned about it then as I was intoxicated with the prospect of a new start. But I also realised that extensive research and many detours would be needed before I could hope to be inwardly in a position to correct the errors of History and Class Consciousness and to provide a scientific, Marxist account of the matters treated there. I have already mentioned one such detour: it lead from the study of Hegel via the projected work on economics and dialectics to my present attempt to work out an ontology of social being.
Parallel with this the desire arose in me to make use of my knowledge of literature, art and their theory to construct a Marxist aesthetics. This was the beginning of my collaboration with Mikhail Lifschitz. In the course of many discussions it became clear to us that even the best and most capable Marxists, like Plekhanov and Mehring, had not had a sufficiently profound grasp of the universal nature of Marxism. They failed, therefore, to understand that Marx confronts us with the necessity of erecting a systematic aesthetics on the foundations of dialectical materialism. This is not the place to describe Lifschitz’ great achievements in the spheres of philosophy and philology. As far as I myself am concerned, I wrote an essay on the Sickingen debate between marx/Engels and Lassalle. In so doing the outlines of such a system became clearly visible, though naturally they were limited to a particular problem. After stubborn initial resistance, especially from the vulgar sociologists, this view has meanwhile gained widespread acceptance in Marxist circles. But it is not important to pursue the matter here any further. I would only point out that the general shift in my philosophical outlook that I have described became clearly apparent in my activities as a critic in Berlin from 1931 to 1933. For it was not just the problem of mimesis that occupied the forefront of my attention, but also the application of dialectics to the theory of reflection. This involved me in a critique of naturalistic tendencies. For all naturalism is based on the idea of the ‘photographic’ reflection of reality. The emphasis on the antithesis between realism and naturalism is absent from both bourgeois and vulgar-Marxist theories but is central to the dialectical theory of reflection and, hence also to an aesthetics in the spirit of Marx.
Although these remarks do not belong here, strictly speaking, they were necessary to indicate the direction and the implications of the change brought about by my realisation that History and Class Consciousness was based on mistaken assumptions. It is these implications that give me the right to say that this was the point where my apprenticeship in Marxism and hence my whole youthful development came to an end. All that remains is for me to offer some comments on my notorious self-criticism of History and Class Consciousness. I must begin by confessing that having once discarded any of my works I remain indifferent to them for the whole of my life. A year after the publication of The Soul and the Forms, for example, I wrote a letter of thanks to Margarethe Susmann for her review of the book. In it I observed that “both the book and its form had become quite alien to me”. It had been the same with the Theory of the Novel and it was the same now in the case of History and Class Consciousness. I returned to the Soviet Union in 1933 with every prospect of fruitful activity: the oppositional role of the magazine Literaturni Kritik on questions of literary theory in the years 1935 – 39 is well known. Tactically it was, however, necessary to distance myself publicly from History and Class Consciousness so that the real partisan warfare against official and semi-official theories of literature would not be impeded by counter-attacks in which my opponents would have been objectively in the right in my view, however narrow-minded they might otherwise be. Of course, in order to publish a self-criticism it was necessary to adopt the current official jargon. This is the only conformist element in the declaration I made at this time. It too was an entry-ticket to all further partisan warfare; the difference between this declaration and my earlier retraction of the Blum Theses is ‘merely’ that I sincerely did believe that History and Class Consciousness was mistaken and I think that to this day. When, later on, the errors enshrined in the book were converted into fashionable notions, I resisted the attempt to identify these with my own ideas and in this too I believe I was in the right. The four decades that have elapsed since the appearance of History and Class Consciousness, the changed situation in the struggle for a true Marxist method, my own production during this period, all these factors may perhaps justify my taking a less one-sided view now. It is not, of course, my task to establish how far particular, rightly-conceived tendencies in History and Class Consciousness really produced fruitful results in my own later activities and perhaps in those of others. That would be to raise a whole complex of questions whose resolution I may be allowed to leave to the judgement of history.
Budapest, March 1967.
ABC of Communism, Bukharin & Preobrazhensky, 1919
Marxism & Philosophy, Karl Korsch, 1923
What is Proletarian Culture?, Trotsky, 1923
Dialectical & Historical Materialism, Stalin, 1938
Cyril Smith, 1998
Marx’s Theory of Alienation, Istvan Meszaros, 1970