Monday, February 7, 2022

On Lukács's construction of class consciousness

I did not write the following text with public presentation in mind – it was merely an exercise in trying to clarify for myself Lukács's arguments regarding class consciousness. However, since there have been a few requests on Twitter for me to explain at greater length some of my many objections to Lukács's
History and Class Consciousness, I thought it might be worthwhile to make this available for those who are interested.

Because it originated as reading notes, what follows basically marches through the "Class Consciousness" essay from beginning to end. I do not, except right at the end, bring in anything from Lukács's other essays. I wanted only to make as clear as possible how the essay's argument unfolds. When I copy/pasted this into the blog editor, I lost all the footnotes – and hence all of the page citations – and all of the diacritical marks. I added a few of each back in (notes are at the end) but it was too tedious, so I gave up. Apologies for that! All quotations come from the standard Livingstone translation, but I have sometimes modified them.


Lukács begins from Engels, but interprets Engels in a particular way. Engels makes two claims about historical materialism: that individual motives may spur individual action, but that they do little to determine collective outcomes; and that preceding historical causes drive the formation of individual motives. Lukács transmutes these claims into “the essence of scientific Marxism”: “the realization that the real motor forces of history are independent of man’s (psychological) consciousness of them.” 

He also takes Marx’s remark, from Capital, that reflection on human forms of life “begins post festum” to be specifically about “bourgeois thought.” Rather than a general claim about human beings acting first and seeking to understand afterwards, it becomes a specific claim about bourgeois “dogma.” On this basis, he diagnoses a “dilemma” in bourgeois thought: either the social institutions of the bourgeois epoch become “fossilized” as the eternal form of society itself, or else “everything meaningful and purposive is banished from history,” which becomes a senseless series of fatalities. 

Lukács maintains that Marx has exposed this dilemma “as an illusion” cast by “man’s plight in bourgeois society,” wherein people are “at the mercy of the forces of production.” Marx reduces “the objectivity of the social institutions so hostile to people to relations between people,” and this is supposed by Lukács to “overcome the objectivity attributed both to social institutions inimical to man and to their historical evolution,” an overcoming which results in “the restoration of this objectivity to their underlying basis, to the relations between people.” “This objectivity,” Lukacs claims, is thereby revealed to be “the self-objectification of human society at a particular stage in its development.” 

This is all incredibly unhelpful. It only brings Lukacs back to where he began. “Dialectical materialism,” he claims, “does not deny that people perform their historical deeds themselves and that they do so consciously. But, as Engels emphasizes in a letter to Mehring, this consciousness is false.” 

This is not what Engels wrote to Mehring, however. Engels’s claim was much more limited. He wrote:

Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, indeed, but with a false consciousness. The real motives impelling him remain unknown to him, otherwise it would not be an ideological process at all. Hence he imagines false or apparent motives. Because it is a process of thought he derives both its form and its content from pure thought, either his own or that of his predecessors. He works with mere thought material which he accepts without examination as the product of thought, he does not investigate further for a more remote process independent of thought; indeed its origin seems obvious to him, because as all action is produced through the medium of thought it also appears to him to be ultimately based upon thought.

Engels is not discussing people in general, but ideologists in particular. As he continues in the next paragraph:

If Luther and Calvin “overcome” the official Catholic religion, or Hegel “overcomes” Fichte and Kant, or if the constitutional Montesquieu is indirectly “overcome” by Rousseau with his “Social Contract,” each of these events remains within the sphere of theology, philosophy or political science, represents a stage in the history of these particular spheres of thought and never passes outside the sphere of thought. And since the bourgeois illusion of the eternity and the finality of capitalist production has been added as well, even the victory of the physiocrats and Adam Smith over the mercantilists is accounted as a sheer victory of thought; not as the reflection in thought of changed economic facts but as the finally achieved correct understanding of actual conditions subsisting always and everywhere – in fact if Richard Coeur-de-Lion and Philip Augustus had introduced free trade instead of getting mixed up in the crusades we should have been spared five hundred years of misery and stupidity.

Engels is discussing the peculiar idealism that sees the movement of history as an ongoing argument in which certain intellectual developments supplant older forms of thought by winning ‘the battle of ideas.’ Engels’s point is twofold. The active life of doing and making both precedes the intellectual life of understanding and constructing arguments and this active life is the effective force behind changes in the realm of ideas. Practice precedes theory and drives theory; theory does not precede or drive practice. 

Lukacs turns these claims about theoretical systems into claims about consciousness as such. For Lukacs, action precedes and impels consciousness, and is misrecognized by the consciousness that accompanies it from behind, as it were. The historical objectivity of previous results – themselves unintended outcomes – impels us to act without any awareness of this real motive power. Thrown into the future by the accumulated force of the past, we act without knowing why we act. 

Lukacs, in essence, substitutes “history” for “ideology” in Engels’s claim. In Lukacs’s rewriting, history is a process accomplished by the so-called historical agent consciously, indeed, but with a false consciousness. The real motives impelling him remain unknown to him, otherwise it would not be an historical process at all. Hence he imagines false or apparent motives. 

This substitution of history for ideology leads up to Lukacs’s famous “twofold dialectical definition of ‘false consciousness’” and to his definition of class consciousness as “imputed” [zugerechnet] consciousness. Lukacs drives a wedge between “concrete investigation” of false consciousness and the examination of “the empirical individual” – be it “man, class, or people” – in order to discern the “empirically given (and hence psychological or mass-psychological) consciousness.” According to Lukacs, “concrete investigation” can only be carried out as an investigation in “relation to society as a whole.” 

Only when this relationship to the whole is kept in mind does the “dialectical definition” of false consciousness appear. The individual historical agent has a certain “subjectively justified” consciousness, a consciousness that is understandable as a response to the social situation in which agents find themselves. Nonetheless, this subjectively justified consciousness is partial, limited, and, to that extent, objectively false. The historical agent cannot see the whole picture, and strives, therefore, for something it cannot achieve. Because of its objective falseness, this consciousness is not able to obtain its subjective aims, but – and this is where Lukacs pulls the rabbit out of the hat – what it does achieve are “the objective goals of social development, which it does not know and did not will.”

This result depends upon rechristening the unintended outcome of intentional action as the intended outcome of the social totality’s action, the realization of history’s goal by the unwitting agency of individual people, classes, and nations. But this determination of, as it were, the total social consciousness does not yet give us class consciousness, which is supposed to be the object of this investigation. Class consciousness is discerned by moving back one step from the totality, by “infer[ing] the thoughts and feelings which people would have in a particular situation if they were able to assess both it and the interests arising from it in their impact upon immediate action and on the whole structure of society.” This counterfactual consciousness – the rational assessment and aims “appropriate to their objective situation” – gives us the form of imputed consciousness in general. Class consciousness proper comprises “the rationally appropriate reactions imputed to a particular typical position in the process of production.” 

The first three moments of the dialectical definition of false consciousness gave us something intelligible: individuals acting on a partial understanding of the social whole and thereby achieving unintended results. Similarly here, Lukacs has so far given us something counterfactual but theoretically reasonable: a reconstruction of the consciousness that would be rational for a class-positioned agent with full information. But now he seems to pull another rabbit out of the hat, concluding that “the historically significant actions of the class as a whole are determined in the last resort by this consciousness and not by the thought of the individual.”

Now, this might be salvageable in a way that the goal of social development is not. It may be that the irrational and inappropriate actions of class-located individuals amount to nothing, precisely because they are irrational and inappropriate. The rationally appropriate course of action for an individual capitalist is to pump as much surplus labor out of their workforce as possible. Any capitalist who is soft-hearted or soft-brained enough to slack up on the exploitation will lose market share and profitability to competitors who act in the rationally appropriate manner. Thus, the social action of the capitalist class as a whole will approximate to the rationally appropriate policy. 

This result depends, however, on the operation of selection mechanisms like competitive markets. Do all class actors face analogous, clearly-defined collective action scenarios with dominant strategies?

No. And Lukacs admits as much. The section that follows his definition of (imputed) class consciousness details the failure of this model to generalize. “For pre-capitalist epochs and for the behavior of many strata within capitalism whose economic roots lie in pre-capitalism,” he begins, “class consciousness is unable to achieve complete clarity.” But this is the thin edge of the wedge. It is not just that the class consciousness of estates and castes is muddled by the “political and religious factors” that mediate their relationship to the economic basis of their existence. “There is,” in fact, “no possible position” within a pre-capitalist society “from which the economic basis of all social relations could be made conscious.* 

This veil between “the vantage point of a particular class” and “the totality of existing society,” a veil that precludes the formation of an actual class consciousness, does not afflict only pre-capitalist classes. Even within capitalist society itself, most classes are so situated that their vantage point “is ambiguous or sterile.” In the cases of the modern peasantry and petit bourgeoisie, “we cannot really speak of class consciousness,” since “a full consciousness of their situation would reveal to them the hopelessness of their particular striving.” That is, there is no rationally appropriate and fully informed strategy in their situation. Only two classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, are “pure classes,” capable of forming a real class consciousness. “Only from the vantage point of these classes,” Lukacs writes, “can a plan for the total organization of society even be imagined.” We can see here just how strongly Lukacs is attached to the notion of social totality (the complete information proviso in my reconstruction of his definition above). 

This attachment creates a paradox, however. Already we have seen that the causal force of class consciousness depends upon the operation of a selection mechanism that excludes all pre-modern classes from the set of class conscious historical agents. The totality condition has whittled this down further, leaving only the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. But it actually has ramifications beyond this. When the totality condition is combined with the selection mechanism, the bourgeoisie ends up in an impossible position. The bourgeoisie has a rationally appropriate strategy – maximize exploitation in order to maximize profits – that can be causally effective in determining the actions of individual members of the class, but this strategy is incompatible with complete information (or a infinitely reiterated game scenario), under which condition it turns into an irrational strategy. In Lukács’s terms, the class consciousness of the bourgeoisie “is cursed by its very nature with the tragic fate of developing an insoluble contradiction at the very zenith of its powers.”

Lukacs is himself very unclear on this point, and may not have understood the implications of his own argument here. The most plausible reconstruction is the most straightforward one: the bourgeoisie, in pursuing the rationally dominant strategy of maximizing profits, immiserates the working class and renders it incapable either of purchasing the products of its own labor (a demand-side theory of crises) or of reproducing its own labor-power (a supply-side theory of crises). In the words of the Manifesto, the bourgeoisie is “incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him.” 

Lukacs adorns this conclusion with fancy dress, calling it a “dialectical” antagonism within bourgeois consciousness rather than a “contradictory” one, but the plain conclusion is that the bourgeoisie cannot possess a real class consciousness, either.** The position of the bourgeoisie in production is such that “if they were able to assess both [their situation] and the interests arising from it in their impact upon immediate action and on the whole structure of society,” they would not be able to find any rational strategy to pursue. The strategy that seems rational in guiding their immediate action is fatal in its ramifications on the whole structure of society. The bourgeoisie can have a class consciousness only in the form of a “‘false’ consciousness.”*** 

Thus, Lukacs is driven to the conclusion that only one class in the history of humanity is capable of possessing class consciousness: the proletariat. 

But then he is caught on the other side of the paradox that undid bourgeois class consciousness. The same selection mechanism that ensures bourgeois false consciousness prevails over the idiosyncratic motives of individual capitalists – the operations of market competition in the exchange of commodities – works against the determination of proletarian action by class consciousness. 

The situation of the individual proletarian – or individual group of proletarians – exerts selective pressure to prioritize achievable local goals, such as better pay and better job security, over long-term and highly risky strategies like mobilizing for revolution. Lukacs knows this. He highlights it. He locates “in the center of proletarian class consciousness … and antagonism [Widerspruch] between momentary interest and ultimate goal.” But this just leads him to double down: “class consciousness is identical with neither the psychological consciousness of individual members of the proletariat, nor with the (mass-psychological) consciousness of the proletariat as a whole; but it is, on the contrary, the sense, become conscious, of the historical role of the class.” In other words, the rationally appropriate strategy for anyone located in the class position of the proletariat is to recognize the long-term untenability of reforms to capitalism and to embrace revolutionary socialism. 

But this is too convenient by half. Lukacs is simply presupposing that his theoretical construction of class consciousness – which assumes that one’s position in the process of production is the only aspect of one’s situation that gives rise to rationally appropriate strategies – is not only a) present to individual proletarians as an available psychological consciousness but also b) that the the analysis of the false consciousness endemic to all the other classes is both i) available to individual proletarians and ii) basically descriptive of the actual strategies pursued by those other classes, such that iii) proletarians can recognize it as the strategy being pursued. In other words, the rationally appropriate strategies (even when these are self-contradictory and hence not rational) are the actual strategies being pursued, and this fact is available to regular empirical consciousness. 

This reveals two insuperable problems with Lukacs’s theory. 

First, he has to, in the case of the proletariat, violate his own strictures about keeping imputed class consciousness separate from empirical-psychological consciousness. He argues that “every momentary interest” of the proletariat is ambiguous – “either it will be a step towards the ultimate goal or it will conceal it” – and that what decides the matter is only “the class consciousness of the proletariat.” But this only makes any sense if class consciousness has here come to mean the mass-psychological consciousness of empirically identified proletarians. The success of the proletarian revolutionary movement depends entirely upon “the ideological maturity of the proletariat, i.e., on its class consciousness,” which can only mean on the psychological uptake of class consciousness. 

Thus, class consciousness as an imputed rationally appropriate strategy is impossible for all non-proletarian classes – since they cannot pursue a rational strategy given their social situation – but also impossible for the proletariat, since “the historically significant actions of the class as a whole are,” it turns out, not “determined in the last resort by this consciousness” in contrast to “the thought of the individual,” but only by the becoming individual of this consciousness. The proletariat makes the whole world, and will make the whole world consciously just to the extent that individual proletarians become psychologically conscious of belonging to the class that makes the whole world. 

Second, therefore, Lukacs’s construction of class consciousness reduces to a pure moralism. The imputed proletarian class consciousness is simply the capacity to rationally plan the totality of human society. This consciousness belongs to the proletariat because their situation in production is that they make the entire concrete world, the world of use-values, and are therefore able “to see society from the center, as a coherent whole.” As they become psychologically conscious of this class consciousness, they form “revolutionary workers’ councils,” which embody “the economic an political defeat of reification,” since they tend to abolish all separations: “the bourgeois separation fo the legislature, administration, and judiciary,” as well as “the fragmentation of the proletariat in time and space” and the separation between “economics and politics.” In short, the real proletarians, as soon as they are really conscious of being proletarian, will act in a really proletarian manner to consciously and methodically create the totality of society as a unity – and thereby also to cancel their existence as proletarians by eliminating classes altogether. 

This is pure moralism because it posits a form of consciousness that sees all, knows all, and acts only and always for the sake of humanity as a whole, and claims that the effectiveness of this consciousness “can only come about as the product of the – free – action of the proletariat itself.” That the proletariat is capable of the conscious and unified creation of the social totality – the total planning of society – is simply a matter to be taken on faith. Any failure to rationally produce this planned society is a failure to achieve the self-canceling proletarian class consciousness. To ask how this consciousness proceeds to determine its acts is to admit that one does not possess this consciousness.

* HCC, 55-7. This is, in fact, a very interesting conclusion with far reaching implications. In many respects it foreshadows the arguments regarding the “moral economy” of the peasantry that emerged from New Left studies, including those of E.P. Thompson, Ranajit Guha, and James Scott. As Thompson put it at one point, “the contest for symbolic authority [between plebians and gentry] may be seen, not as a way of acting out ulterion ‘real’ contests, but as a real contest in its own right” (“Eighteenth-Century English Society: Class Struggle without Class,” Social History 3:2 [May 1978]: 159). The point is that in pre-capitalist conditions of production, it is not rationally appropriate for any class to ‘play the game’ – production, exploitation, and resistance to exploitation – economically. Under pre-capitalist (or incompletely capitalist) conditions, forms of economic ‘irrationality’ – cultures of prestige, traditional limits on production, ‘natural’ price-setting, etc. – are themselves rational.

** The standard English translation is hopeless here. Lukács contrasts a dialektischer Widerspruch to a kontradiktorischer Widerspruch, but Livingstone often translates Widerspruch as “contradiction,” muddying the waters.

***HCC, 65. Thus, further down the same page, Lukács observes that, while the bourgeoisie is driven “to clarify its own class interest on every particular issue,” this “clear awareness” – class consciousness itself – “becomes fatal when it is extended to the question of the totality.”