Lukacs and the Frankfurt School

Philip Ferguson PLF13 at SPAMstudent.canterbury.ac.nz
Sun Nov 28 14:27:26 MST 1999



Louis wrote:

> While I don't have the
> free time to establish the link between Lukacs' concept of an alienated
> working-class and the Frankfurt School, I am sure that it is there
>
A couple of years ago I bought what looked like an excellent book on the Frankfurt
School.  It's by Phil Slater and is called 'Origin and Significance of the
Frankfurt School' (Routledge, 1977).  Every time I start to read it, I get
distracted with other work, so I've only ever got a couple of dozen pages into it.
But it still looks excellent.

One of the things that interested me was that it was the Frankfurt School which
first published Henryk Grossman's 'Law of Accumulation', one of the great works of
Marxist political economy this century, and as classically Marxist as you can get.
Indeed this book was the very first book published by the Frankfurt School.  (It
remained known/read to only a few people in the English-speaking world for decades,
until Pluto finally published it in 1992 with an introduction by Tony Kennedy.)

I haven't read much about the Frankfurt School, but I note there is a book called
'Praxis and method: a sociological dialogue with Lukacs, Gramsci and the early
Frankfurt School' by Richard Kilminster (Routledge, 1979).  I don't know anything
abut this book, but maybe it's worth looking at.

One of the main things that has to be remembered about the Frankfurt School was
that, even at the start, it was caught in the conundrum of whether it was primarily
going to be a Marxist research school or part of the academy.  It tried to be both,
which is understandable, but I think in practical terms is virtually impossible.
Even in Germany at the time, where there was a massive radical left which could act
as some kind of counter-weight to the pressures of the academy, it was impossible.

The rise of Stalinism and the defeat of Marxism outside the academy, followed by
the rise of the Nazis, meant that there was no counter-pressure to the academic
environment which is so inhospitable to Marxism.  (It's no accident that, although
liberal-left sociologists and historians and so on pay respects to Marx, all Marx's
work was done, and could only be done, outside the academy.)

It's really not surprising in these conditions that the Frankfurt School people got
pessimistic.  The fact that they then had to leave Germany and set up in the USA
would only have added to the pressures.  Perhaps one of the most remarkable things
about the School is that, after it relocated to the USA, its people remained
leftists and did not end up working for the US State department as anti-communists
during the Cold War.

In terms of Lukacs, about whom my knowledge is a lot better, I think there is,
among the 'western Marxists' an exaggeration of the link between Lukacs and the
Frankfurt School.  Lukacs was a much more orthodox Marxist and Leninist.

Like the Frankfurt School, he was vitally interested in subjectivity, but his
interest was in *overcoming* lack of class consciousness, and seeing the
revolutionary party as the necessary instrument for this, while the Frankfurt
School was interested in subjectivity more in the sense of stressing the
impediments and not positing how these could be removed.  Theirs was, or certainly
became, essentially the view of the radical academic commentator, standing outside
of history and the historical subject, rather than the revolutionary practitioner
standing inside history and being part of the social agency for change.

Also Lukacs was more concerned with things like how the factory system produced a
reified consciousness (and how university education repeated the process), than how
consumerism blocked class consciousness.  The fact that the Frankfurt School
operated within the western academy, and were detached from the struggle against
capitalist social relations, perhaps explains a certain blind spot by these
theorists when it came to the academy itself - a blind spot reflected in the
hostility of people like Horkheimer (or was it Adorno, or both?) to the student
radicalism of the 60s and to disruption of the university classroom - presumably
these particular Frankfurters, like the liberal academics, saw the university as
somehow separate from and above capitalist relations rather than totally mired in
them.  Lukacs, of course, was a strong supporter of the student revolt and, in his
last few years, took great heart from it and was encouraged by it into a more
vigorous hostility to Stalinism in the two or three years before his death.

I think Lukacs was more concerned with reification and its results - one of which
is alienation - than alienation per se.

Another problem in relation to Marxists such as Lukacs and Gramsci is that there is
a tradition of western Marxism which has embraced these people while basically
gutting their revolutionary ideas.  Gramsci would, for instance, be horrified if he
could see the way his concept or analysis of 'hegemony' has been put to use by
left-liberal academics and post-Marxists like Laclau and Mouffe.  Today, Gramsci is
used as the theorist for 'radical democracy', a complete bastardisation of what
Gramsci the revolutionary was about.

Similarly the 'critical theory' of the Frankfurt School, which is full of useful
insights into the operations of capitalism and how people in a capitalist society
perceive the world, has been turned into a plaything for self-indulgent
left-liberal academics.  It allows them to speculate endlessly on various aspects
of contemporary capitalist society and look down on the working class, while doing
absolutely nothing to challenge the exploitation of the working class which
produces the surplus-value that allows the academy, and them as academics, to exist
in the first place.

Philip Ferguson












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