Georg Lukács: the Actuality of the Revolution

“Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.” This is how Georg Lukács opens his short book Lenin: a Study in the Unity of his Thought. Lukács was writing just as the peak of European revolutionary ferment had passed – his book was published in 1924 – and his message is clear. He restores the active, living aspect of Marxism – the self-emancipation of the working class – to full view, and, against the mechanical distortions of Marxism that had grown up through the period of the Second International, reminds us that historical materialism is, first and foremost, a guide to action, a tool for politics. At the heart of this politics is working-class agency:

Historical materialism is the theory of proletarian revolution. It is so because its essence is an intellectual synthesis of the social existence which produces and fundamentally determines the proletariat; and because the proletariat struggling for liberation finds its clear consciousness in it. 

The theory of proletarian revolution fuses knowledge about the conditions that create working-class life (the ‘social existence which produces’) with knowledge created by the struggle against that life. The class learns its world as it fights to change that world, to liberate itself. This is a radically democratic, flexible, open, living, breathing Marxism, a Leninism for learning.

Lukács’ Background

 Lukács, by 1924, was 39, already in early middle age, and with a substantial reputation as an apolitical, and even tragically-minded, literary critic and philosopher already established. From a wealthy background, he was not attracted to Social Democracy as a young man but was, instead, radicalised through the experience of World War One. His evolution was rapid; from dismissing the chances of human liberation and social change in 1911, by the early 1920s he was a leader in the fledgling Hungarian Communist Party, and an active participant in the short-lived Hungarian Revolution. His major philosophical work – History and Class Consciousness – he wrote in snatches whilst on the run or underground following counter-revolution in Hungary. It processed and thought through his break from idealism and mysticism into full identification with the workers’ movement and revolutionary socialism. In the process, he crystallised, and expressed with especial brilliance and clarity, the central themes and concerns of historical materialism. And then, almost as quickly, Lukács’ revolutionary ardour was extinguished. After his three great works in the 1920s – History and Class Consciousness and its defence, Tailism and the Dialectic, and his Lenin – and his involvement in Hungarian revolutionary politics, Lukács capitulated, in the late 1920s, to Stalinism and, for the rest of his long, productive life, wrote within the limits set by identifying with the new, oppressive ruling class in the Soviet Union. For decades, in fact, Lukács’ achievement was all but lost to revolutionaries, his books suppressed in the East and out of print and forgotten in the West, so powerful was the Stalinist eradication of the memory of real, libertarian socialism. It took the uprisings of the 1960s to return him to prominence.

His achievement in the early 1920s, then, stands out like the flash of a meteor across a night sky, illuminating hidden details all around it. ‘From a historical point of view,’ Michel Löwy, in an important study from the New Left era, puts it, ‘Lukács’ famous book was the expression of a period of revolts, insurrections, general strikes, and workers’ councils, a period of revolutionary upsurge through Europe.’ [1]

Workers in Russia had, in 1917, overthrown the Tsar and, in the October revolution, the Bolsheviks had led a successful socialist uprising. In Germany soldiers’ revolts had ended World War One; ongoing workers’ rebellions kept Germany in a state of ferment. Mass strikes, and revolutionary war in occupied Ireland, shook Britain. In Lukács’ native Hungary a workers’ government had, briefly, held power. The capitalist class, from Washington to Wellington, were watching what was happening with a sense of horror. But, by 1924, capitalism was also stabilising itself again – the Russian revolution had failed to spread, the first Labour government in Britain that year brought much-needed legitimacy for the system, reaction asserted itself in Europe. So Lukács’ study of Lenin intervened into this situation. He was drawing on the immense intellectual and moral resources generated by the revolutionary wave, and also reflecting on how it might be sustained.

The first way Lukács stays relevant for us today is through this context. History and Class Consciousness, taken together with Lenin, are, John Rees suggests, ‘one of the unsurpassed philosophical generalisations of the experience of the most revolutionary era in the history of the international working class.’ [2] We have not since reached that pitch of revolutionary awareness. We can learn from our ancestors, and from our history.

Contemporary relevance

 But Lukács has more than an historical interest for us today. The problem he grappled with – class consciousness – is still our problem. How do workers become aware of their interests? How do we fight against reactionary, backwards ideas in the class? What is the connection between political organisation and political consciousness? How do we generalise from experience? How do ideas change? These are extremely practical, and, indeed, urgent, questions for socialists today. Working-class consciousness – measured, crudely and inadequately, for sure, by, say, union membership and strike figures – is at one of the lowest ebbs in this country’s history. How do we get from where we are to where we want to be? Lukács posed these questions in the sharpest terms, and thinking through his answers can help us think through our own challenges.

Theory and organisation

 History and Class Consciousness, for Löwy, ‘opens a new theoretical universe’ [3] in abolishing or transcending the utopian tendencies of Lukács’ earlier political thought. His writings combine an intense focus on concrete detail – on lived reality, and practical politics – with theoretical work drawing on this to generalise.

New Zealand social life has always been anti-theoretical and anti-intellectual. It’s obvious why this is the case for the ruling class; arriving with their social system and its ideologies more-or-less ready-made for importation at the time of colonisation, the ruling class has been able to rely on scattered empirical observation, an ideological mish-mash for self-justification, and a small-minded, farmer-orientated, ‘she’ll be right’ attitude to cover the rest. John Key – without strategic vision or ambition, philistine, proudly inarticulate – symbolises the theoretical poverty of the New Zealand ruling class pretty well.

What about our side? Here too anti-intellectual and anti-theoretical currents have flourished. One reason to read Lukács is because he offers some thoughts about how organisation plays a role in sustaining this situation. Reality, in official ideology, is presented to us as a collection of disconnected fragments: the Dominion Post might cover a story on begging and homelessness in the front section, and another on the economy in the ‘Business’ pages. Mental health reports go into one article; unemployment into another. Something called ‘the economy’ can be discussed separately from another thing called ‘society’, even though we live, somehow, in both.

We need theory to make sense of these fragments as a connected whole. It’s not enough just to say ‘blame capitalism!’ and hope that does the job; theorising about how different aspects of the social whole connect and interact is a vital job for effective politics. Parties like Labour and the Greens, who accept working with the capitalist system, also accept the kind of mental fragmentation it generates – they ‘perform the task,’ Lukács argues in History and Class Consciousness, ‘of establishing the reification in the consciousness of the proletariat both ideologically and on the level of organisation.’ [4] Reification – making processes of connection seem like things frozen separate – keeps unionism (the ‘economy’) separate from political parties (‘politics’) separate from questions of oppression (‘social issues’ and ‘civil society’) and so on.

How are radical, anti-capitalist politics to make the connection? You often encounter people on the left who scorn theory as a distraction. After all, if you have experienced injustice or oppression you know that the world is ordered the wrong way. You don’t need books to tell you that. It’s a position that is easy to sympathise with – a lot of what passes for theory is just mystification, with academics writing in obscure ways to cover up the fact that their ideas are not aimed at helping change the world.

There’s no excuse for constipated prose or using your learning to show off and intimidate people. But theory is about something quite different. Just looking at the world around us – a world which, in important ways, seems itself fragmented – will not get us very far. Lukács stressed the ways in which we need theory to comprehend the totality. John Rees explains:

If the truth is the totality, then it is the totality of working-class experience, internationally and historically, which gives access to the truth. No single experience of struggle alone, no matter how intense, can reveal this. The struggle can open up a path to the truth, but only an act of theoretical generalisation, which builds on this basis, can form an adequate theory. Thus, theory develops its own particular concepts – the dialectic, surplus value, oppression and so on – which condense and interpret real experience. [5]

Lukács makes us work at these connections, to think capitalism as a totality and, from within that, to theorise about how we can fight. So his challenge is to make us work hard at generating both knowledge and strategy. History and Class Consciousness argues that ‘the intelligibility of objects develops in proportion as we grasp their function in the totality to which they belong. This is why only the dialectical conception of totality can enable us to understand reality as a social process.’ [6]

In this article I want to introduce Lukács as a resource for building the Left today, and to encourage people to read him for themselves.

The actuality of revolution

 We can learn from Lukács but, as with everything, this needs to be critical, engaged, questioning learning. He wrote in a period very different to ours, at the high-point of world-changing political struggles.

Lenin’s politics were vindicated, Lukács argues, through ‘the actuality of the revolution.’ This is a periodising term, as Julia Jones outlines in her notes on Lukács’ use of the phrase. Their era was the era of revolutions, a time when the spread of revolution internationally was not only a realistic perspective but something that was happening. Situations changed, rapidly; decisions made in days or hours could have history-shaping consequences: ‘every question of the day – precisely as a question of the day – at the same time became a fundamental problem of the revolution.’ [7] This is, obviously, not the world we’re working in here in Aotearoa currently, although it does describe the ‘actuality of the revolution’ being lived by our comrades in Egypt and throughout the Arab world.

But Lukács’ method retains relevance outside its immediate circumstances:

The actuality of the revolution therefore implies study of each individual daily problem in concrete association with the socio-historic whole, as movements in the liberation of the proletariat. [8]

Our responses to particular political questions – to threatened job losses, say, or to attacks on abortion rights – can only be understood if we think about them as part of the ‘socio-historic whole.’ We grasp them as part of that whole and, in our organising, we try and make each individual movement relate to the wider project of liberation. Knowing, thinking and doing are, for Lukács, inseparable. Workers come to know themselves as a class – and to understand their power as a class – as they act to change the world.

Why the working class?

 Why is this? Lukács follows Marx in seeing workers’ role in production as central to their potential power. Workers, quite literally, make capitalism: we build the computer frames, staff the hospitals, teach the next generation of workers, prepare the burgers and so on. If workers stop doing this – if they organise for strike action – they disrupt the source of capitalists’ profits. That’s a huge potential power.

So far, so orthodox. What Lukács adds to this basic truth of Marxism is a series of meditations on how, at the level of consciousness and politics, this puts the working class in a very special position. The working class, Lukács argues, given their centrality to capitalist production, are best placed to understand the system too:

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-consciousness of the proletariat provided a vantage point from which to survey the whole of society.  [9]

Placed at the centre of capitalist production, the working class are able to gain an understanding of the system in ways other classes cannot. The bourgeoisie, Lukács argues, are, in important ways, unable to understand their own system. The ruling class and their ideologists in the media and the academy tells lies all the time, of course, but, more importantly, for Lukács, their philosophies and systems for understanding the world reproduce the fragmentation on the surface of society. So there are lots of local insights to be gained from studies produced outside of a working-class standpoint, but the capitalist class, as a class, have long since lost the ability to get an accurate, scientific view of the social whole. The fundamental truth of their system – that workers generate their wealth – they cannot face front-on, because it undermines their own moral and social order. (We could add, in Aotearoa’s white settler colonial context, that they cannot face the violence and dispossession of Māori land that went in to the foundation of the modern state, hence the constant anxious forgetting of history the ruling class perpetuate). [10]

The working class, by contrast, need to know reality as it really is in order to change this reality. Standpoint and knowledge combine. We are part of the working-class movement and stand with workers in the sense of taking sides, but historical materialism does more than that; it condenses workers’ experience into a scientific knowledge of the system we live in. ‘Historical materialism,’ Lukács argues in Tailism and the Dialectic,  his defense of History and Class Consciousness, ‘alone is in a position to offer objective and correct knowledge of capitalist society, and does not deliver its knowledge independently of the class standpoint of the proletariat, but rather precisely from this standpoint.’ [11] This self-knowledge, then, opens up both the possibility of understanding capitalism and of gaining the confidence to challenge it:

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. [12]

We are not just the product of our circumstances, but we always produce our circumstances, even as we are not conscious of this process. Things – from railway stations to social relations in wage labour – are human products, and embody human relationships.  Understanding the commodity relationship at the very heart of capitalism allows us then to understand how this seemingly unknowable and uncontrollable totality – the ‘invisible hand’ of the market running our lives – has come to dominate and fragment understanding and consciousness. Social labour – workers’ activity – is thus at the heart of both consciousness and activity. Daniel Lopez has written at greater length on how these ideas of Lukács’ connect with Marx’s early writings.

This allows us to understand the limits of the bourgeois standpoint. It is not as though they have access to the totality, intellectually, but they cynically chose not to disclose it because doing so would shake the foundations of their society (although it would). It is rather that their life activity is intimately premised on the accumulation of value via the production of commodities for a market. They literally live the flat, quantifying, inhuman, instrumentally rational cultural logic of reification. Insofar as human values mean anything for them, they are relegated to the ‘beyond’, as pious religious or liberal sentiments, or perhaps a moment of romantic indulgence in art. So there is a separation here, between pragmatic realism and romanticism.

Think of the current ecological crisis for an example. There are plenty of very serious, and very concerned, public policy figures worrying about climate change. Almost everyone agrees that something needs to be done. But the global negotiations falter because, for all that leaders of each nation state recognise something needs to be done, they cannot agree to that something being done at the expense of the capital in their nation state. Copenhagen, Kyoto, the Stern report all come up against this limit.

The working class, on the other hand, have an interest, in furthering theirown class aims, in a climate justice that would deliver for all humanity. Cheaper, cleaner public transport; collective, planned solutions to housing problems; cleaner air and water: these are collective demands and, in making them from the own standpoint, the working class advances a programme for society as a whole. Another example could be equal pay campaigning: when unions fight for equal pay for women they advance workers’ ‘own class aims,’ but they also advance justice more generally.

Although I do not have space to go into it here, it is worth noting that this aspect of Lukács’ theorising of the working class as the potential bearer of universal interests helps us to see class as at the centre of fights against oppression, rather than as something that might either be ‘more important’ than oppression (in the case of class reductionism) or just one social fragment of oppression alongside others (as with privilege theory). Workers, fighting for themselves, fight for more than themselves.

Understanding, then, can lead to action. The history of the workers’ movement over the last centuries has shown the way in which understanding where workers fit in production – studying, learning, theorising, thinking – and fighting for change – organising – are plaited together. In the social world all sorts of contradictions exist; think of the way extreme wealth exists alongside desperate poverty. Most of the time we take these as just part of reality. Raising them to consciousness produces the possibilities for change. Here’s History and Class Consciousness:

 As the mere contradiction is raised to a consciously dialectical contradiction, as the act of becoming conscious turns into a point of transition to practice, we see once more in greater concreteness the character of proletarian dialectics as we have often described it: namely, since consciousness here is not the knowledge of an opposed object but is the self-consciousness of the subject the act of consciousness overthrows the objective form of its object. [13]

In action – going on strike – workers learn about their own potential power. In learning, they change something about themselves. They no longer feel like powerless individuals and get a sense, instead of what they could become.


 If this is the case, then, how is it that there has not been a revolution already? Why is it that so many workers still support parties openly hostile to their class interests? Lukács’ theories have been met by two, seemingly opposed, objections. Some strains of anarchism, on the one hand, reject all discussions of uneven or contradictory consciousness in the working class as elitist; Lukács is, for them, just another vanguardist. Critics within the Althusserian tradition in Marxism charge Lukács with reading into working-class consciousness his own schemes, with ‘imputing’ consciousness to workers.

Both objections fail to see the dialectics at work in Lukács’ argument, the way he is describing consciousness in motion and as a possibility. Michael Löwy argues that

Class consciousness appears as an objective possibility, the rational expression of the proletariat’s historical interests; it is not a ‘beyond’ but a product of the historical development of real praxis in the class. It is precisely by defining class consciousness as an objective possibility that Lukács escapes both empiricism and idealist subjectivism. [14]

We can see, over history, how certain forms of organisation – trade unions most importantly – have, in country after country, been formed as workers’ consciousness has grown as ‘a product of the historical development of real praxis.’ We can also see, in the legacy from previous struggles, such as the Builders’ Labourers’ Green Bans in Australia or the union presence amongst the arrested fighting alongside Ngati Whatua for the return of Takaparawhau / Bastion Point, the high points of what class consciousness can achieve.

Between what we have now and what we want to achieve, and between ideas and action, the role of organisation is key. Organisation, John Rees argues of Lukács, ‘is the form of mediation between theory and practice.’ [15] We need socialist organisations, revolutionary parties in order to learn, to organise our learning and our generalising from the experience of the class. Socialist organisations produce arguments, of course, in the form of our meetings, leaflets, magazine and website, but, crucially, this cannot be a one-way transmission. Organisation mediates theory and practice by subjecting theory to the test of practice – learning from the class – and by subjecting practice to the test of theory, arguing about current activity in the light of past lessons and experiences. Both parts of this relationship are crucial, and both contribute to each other.

The Communist Party, for Lukács, needs to be the place where this happens, and where this interaction of theory and practice is given form. It’s worth stressing, given some criticisms of Lukács, that what he describes is a goal. There would be nothing sillier, or more self-defeating, than declaring oneself ‘The Party’ and then issuing edicts to the world. Lukács, Michael Löwy argues, ‘was referring to a model or goal that would have to be attained if the party was really to become the vanguard leader of the proletariat.’ In his analysis,

The Communist Party represents the clear historical form of ‘possible’ class consciousness, the highest level of consciousness and action made objective at the level of organisation. 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.

 The Labour Party has, even today, many dedicated trade unionist members, but they are joined in the party by businesspeople, and a host of competing, contradictory social forces. The left may argue one thing, and even win – as with recent fights for greater gender equality – a mandate on an issue, only for the Right and the parliamentary part to work against it. The Party’s structure reproduces, and thus reinforces, uneven and contradictory class consciousness.

A revolutionary socialist organisation, for Lukács, needs to embody a wholly different form of organising. Members, joined together through commitment to workers’ struggle and socialist politics, in their activity work to achieve the kind of universal politics only possible from a working-class standpoint:

Lenin’s idea of party organisation therefore contains as fixed poles: the strictest selection of party members on the basis of proletarian class-consciousness, and total solidarity with and support for all the oppressed and exploited within capitalist society. Thus he dialectically united exclusive singleness of purpose, and universality – the leadership of the revolution in strictly proletarian terms and its general national (and international) character. [16]

The more class-conscious the organisation, in other words, the more fully immersed it should be in support of all the oppressed. In no sense either should socialist organisation be seen as something separate from the movements of the class. ‘Genuinely communist organisation practice,’ as Michael Löwy puts it, ‘must be based on living interaction between the party and the unorganised masses.’ The Communist Party ‘must not act, in sect-like fashion, for the proletariat, but must seek through its actions to advance the real development of the class consciousness of the masses.’ [17]

Organisation mediates, organises, reflects on and draws on consciousness; it is no substitute. At the heart of Lukács’ Marxism is a celebration of active, involved, conscious working people. [18]

Organising for Learning

 Again and again in Lenin: a Study in the Unity of his Thought Lukács comes back to this idea of organising for learning: ‘in no sense is it the party’s role to impose any kind of abstract, cleverly devised tactics upon the masses. On the contrary, it must continuously learn from their struggle and their conduct of it.’ [19]

Socialist organisations, at their best, continue the revolutionary programme as a living tradition, connecting the best ideas of the past victories with the experiences of workers in struggle now. Gathering the most class-conscious workers together into an organisation helps them to pool experience, ideas, tactics, and to generalise learning. The development of consciousness, Daniel Lopez has argued, ‘cannot proceed otherwise than by the developing self-reflexivity of the proletariat and other oppressed strata in radical-democratic organisations which privilege their own voices, and all them to hear the voices of others in their class.’ [20]

So Leninism, for Lukács, is a form of radical learning: the Communist Party ‘must immerse its own truth in the spontaneous mass movement and raise it from the depths of economic necessity, where it was conceived, on to the heights of free, conscious action.’ [21] Organisations exist to give this learning a concrete, and durable, form. Learning is also about learning from mistakes – what the organisation gets wrong matters, as we reflect on this and try to clarify lessons for the future. And, like a thread through all this, is workers’ self-emancipation:

Organisational independence is senseless and leads straight back to sectarianism if at the same time it does not constantly pay heed tactically to the level of consciousness of the largest and most retrograde sections of the masses … the ability to act, of self-criticism, of self-correction and of theoretical development all co-exist in a constant state of interaction. The Communist Party does not function as a stand in for the proletariat even in theory. [22]

Forms of organisation exist the better to develop workers’ confidence and consciousness, ‘to bring this process into being, to accelerate it.’ [23] In periods of revolutionary struggles workers build forums for power – soviets, workers councils, factory committees and so on. These are another form of what Lukács, in History and Class Consciousness, calls institutions that overcome reification – radical democracy, and the forms workers use to construct it during revolutionary periods, make the connections between the ‘things’ of the world and the social processes that make them, and allow workers to be conscious of their role in both.

‘The Key Link’

Learning for socialist organisations is learning for a purpose, learning for liberation. We draw on experience of past struggle the better to fight capitalism now.

One idea Lukács developed in his study of Lenin was that of the ‘key link.’  Looking at ‘the reality of the total process, the totality of social development’ [24] leads socialists to make assessments about that total process; politics involving working out both where the system’s weak points are, and where our side is best placed to argue.

People can sometimes be uncomfortable with this kind of talk of strategy and tactics, because it sounds like moral judgements are being made. But this is not the case – to argue, as I would, following last year’s dispute at Ports of Auckland, that unionised port workers have more potential power currently than the unemployed is not to denigrate the vital work of a group like Auckland Action Against Poverty. Rather, it’s to try and get a sense of where we stand in relation to the system’s needs.

Lukács made great use of this metaphor of the ‘key link.’ He was riffing off some lines of Lenin’s in What is to be done?:

Every question “runs in a vicious circle” because political life as a whole is an endless chain consisting of an infinite number of links. The whole art of politics lies in finding and taking as firm a grip as we can of the link that is least likely to be struck from our hands, the one that is most important at the given moment, the one that most of all guarantees its possessor the possession of the whole chain.

Lenin talks about ‘the art of politics’ – nothing here is predetermined or mechanically ordained, and the subjective element – the question of organising people to ‘take as firm a grip as they can’ – can, in certain historical circumstances, play a very important role. Lukács elaborates:

The general need to take into account all existing tendencies in every concrete situation by no means implies that all are of equal weight when decisions are taken. On the contrary, every situation contains a central problem the solution of which determines both the answer to the other questions raised simultaneously by it and the key to the further development of all tendencies in the future.

 Again, knowledge and action for the working class fuse. Lukács does not argue here for a kind of voluntarism, as if we can decide ourselves what the key link may be. Rather, he argues that what is essential for successful struggle is us working out what this link may be, and organising accordingly.

One example of this might be the Super Size My Pay or minimum wage campaigns from last decade, when Unite and other unions, in focussing on youth rates and low pay, managed to find an issue – poverty wages – around which a whole series of other questions crystallized. The ability of activists to seize that link, to make that issue central, in turn allowed it to be used to illuminate other social problems.

Lukács goes on:

The criterion of true Marxist politics always consists in extracting and concentrating with the greatest energy upon those moments in the historical process which – at any given instance or phase – contain within them this relationship to the present whole and to the question of development central for the future – to the future in its practical and tangible totality. Therefore, this energetic seizure of the next decisive link in the chain by no means entails the extraction of its moment from the totality at the expense of the other moments in it. On the contrary, it means that, once related to this central problem, all other moments of the historical process can thereby be correctly understood and solved. The connexion of all problems with one another is not loosened by this approach; it is strengthened and made more concrete. [25]

This is how we approached the question of equal marriage rights earlier this year. Against some on the left who criticised a focus on marriage as detracting from campaigning around queer youth suicide rates and other more important issues, our argument was that marriage rights was the link in the chain that could lead us to greater gains in other areas. This was not just because we had a real chance of winning, although this mattered, but also because of the ideological place of marriage and the way a victory could give confidence for struggles to come.

Lukács’ idea of the ‘key link’ challenges us to think politically and strategically instead of in terms of moralism. There are many injustices around us – many more, in fact, than any one organisation could combat effectively – and we prioritise areas of work. Thinking through how and why certain work is prioritised adds politics to the process.

The actuality of Lukács?

 What can we do with Lukács today? I have tried to outline some of the ways in which reading his work can enrich our own practice today. But it is important to realise the distance between us too. Lukács believed that ‘Lenin’s concept of party organisation presupposes the fact – the actuality – of the revolution.’ [26] That fact cannot be presupposed in our world currently and, like the rest of the legacy of revolutionary politics from the twentieth century and so-called Leninism in particular, we need to approach this material with a critical view. There are no immediate parallels to our own work.

Michael Löwy, during an interview in the 1990s, said he felt we needed not to replace Lukács but rather complete him. [27] It’s a good line; Lukács leaves us with a lot of unfinished business – around class consciousness, around building organisations, around strategy – and a lot of thinking about problems that are still with us. He helps us think about ‘the problem of the present as a historical problem’ [28] – how did we end up in this situation, and how might we get out? Reading these writings, produced at a time when world revolution was on the agenda, can underline how far we are now from the goals of even a century ago, but they can also remind us of how uneven, and uncertain, the path of human liberation can be. Putting activity, and workers’ self-activity, at the centre of that sense of uncertainty – where our ability to organise and to think matters – helps:

The class consciousness of the proletariat, the truth of the process ‘as subjects’ is itself far from stable and constant; it does not advance according to mechanical ‘laws.’ It is the consciousness of the dialectical process itself: it is likewise a dialectical concept. For the active and practice side of class consciousness, its true essence, can only become visible in its authentic form when the historical process imperiously requires it to come into force, i.e. when an acute crisis in the economy drives it to action. At other times it remains theoretical and latent, corresponding to the latent and permanent crisis of capitalism; it confronts the individual questions and conflicts of the day with its demands, but as ‘mere’ consciousness. [29]

Revolutions in the Arab world, and instability in Europe, give these problems an immediacy and actuality – on a global scale – that demands we take class consciousness and political organisation seriously now, whatever the relative flatness of politics in Aotearoa.

Lukács encourages us, finally, to carry out the kind of studies, and to build the sort of organisation, that can give us confidence to think for ourselves: to learn from the struggle around us, to generalise from workers’ experience, to argue for socialist politics and to learn from history. It seems appropriate to leave the last formulation of this to the thinker himself:

The Leninist tradition can therefore only mean the undistorted and flexible preservation of this living and enlivening, growing and creative function of historical materialism […] [it must be] studied in order to learn how to apply the dialectic; to learn how to discover, by concrete analysis of concrete situations, the specific in the general and the general in the specific; to see in the novelty of a situation what connects it with former developments; to observe the perpetually new phenomena constantly produced under the laws of historical development; to detect the part in the whole and the whole in the part; to find in historical necessity the moment of activity and in activity the connexion with historical necessity. [30]

Lukács offers his work as ‘a weapon in the class struggle of the proletariat.’ It’s up to us to make it useful today.


Thanks to Daniel Lopez for his comments on an earlier draft of this essay. I first presented these arguments at a speech to the International Socialism Day School in Wellington in July 2013. Thanks to everyone who offered comments and criticisms at that session.

[1] Michael Löwy, Georg Lukács: from Romanticism to Bolshevism, trans. Patrick Camiller (NLB, 1979), p. 189.

[2] John Rees, The Algebra of Revolution: the Dialectic and the Classical Marxist Tradition (Routledge, 1998), p. 210.

[3] Löwy, p. 173.

[4] Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Merlin, 1971), p. 310.

[5] Rees, p. 236.

[6] History and Class Consciousness, p. 13.

[7] Lukács, Lenin: a Study in the Unity of His Thought, trans. Nicholas Jacobs (NLB, 1977), p. 13.

[8] Ibid.

[9] History and Class Consciousness, pp. 19 – 20.

[10] One curious proof of this is the strange way in which many right-wing and conservative politicians, after they retire from politics, can offer surprisingly decent, if limited, insights into particular parts of society. Al Gore wrote thoughtfully on climate change; Jeff Kennett, the horrendous Liberal party figure in Australia, pursued vicious cuts when in office but, in retirement, has been an advocate for great understanding of mental illness and depression. They grasp, often sincerely, at one problem, but cannot relate it to the world they have themselves been working within.

[11] Lukács, Tailism and the Dialectic: a Defence ofHistory and Class Consciousness, trans. Esther Leslie (Verso, 2002), p. 80.

[12] History and Class Consciousness, p. 149.

[13] Ibid., p. 222.

[14] Löwy, p. 175.

[15] Rees, p. 225.

[16] Lukács, Lenin, p. 30.

[17] Löwy, pp. 185, 186.

[18] Debate has re-emerged on the radical left internationally around Lukács’ views of leadership, particularly in light of the way his arguments have been put to use justifying current political practices. That debate is beyond the scope of this article to address, although what follows is in some ways an implicit response. Lukács stressed that leadership was something that needed to be earned, and that existed to encourage self-activity and self-confidence amongst the broader mass of workers.

[19] Lenin, p. 36.

[20] Daniel Lopez, ‘The Revolutionary Philosophy and Politics of Georg Lukács,’ Unpublished document, p. 33.

[21] History and Class Consciousness, p. 41.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Tailism and the Dialectic, p. 81.

[24] Lenin, p. 18.

[25] Ibid., p. 85.

[26] Ibid., p. 26.

[27] Eva L. Corredor, Lukács After Communism: Interviews with Contemporary Intellectuals (Duke University Press, 1997), p. 20.

[28] History and Class Consciousness, p. 157.

[29] Ibid. pp. 40 – 41.

[30] Lenin, p. 88.